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Science and Education Groups Raise Concerns About Proposed Visa Policies


Fifty-six of the nation’s leading scientific and educational organizations are calling on the Trump administration to shelve a visa proposal that would significantly expand the amount of personal information collected from millions of people applying to enter the United States.

The personal information required under the proposal would have a chilling effect on science researchers, academics and students seeking to pursue advanced studies, contribute to scientific and engineering research innovations and participate in collaborations in the United States, the organizations stated in a joint letter sent to the U.S. State Department as part of the public comment process.

“We appreciate and support the need to secure our nation and its citizens from individuals who seek to do the United States and its interests harm; however, while doing so, we must remain open to those pursuing academic study and scientific and engineering research,” the letter said. “In fact, our nation’s security depends on a visa and immigration system that accomplishes both of these important tasks. Global academic and scientific exchange is now constant and necessary, fueling the innovations essential to strengthening our nation’s economy and improving the lives of U.S. citizens.”

The proposal would require an estimated 14.7 million individuals, both immigrants and nonimmigrants, seeking an entry visa to the United States to identify the social media platforms they have used during the previous five years. The State Department published the proposed policy change in the Federal Register on March 30 and it awaits approval by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

If enacted, the new disclosure requirements would impact far more international travelers than an earlier administration policy issued last May. It also would require immigrant and nonimmigrant visa seekers to provide their prior five years of telephone numbers, email addresses and travel history.

The required information submission policy being proposed by the State Department differs from a separate proposal known as the “Extreme Vetting Initiative” under review by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that would require scrutiny of far more information, including “publicly available information, such as media, blogs, public hearings, conferences, academic website, social media websites such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, radio, television, press, geospatial sources, internet sites, and specialized publications.”

Still, the State Department proposal would not only impact some 1 million international students who attended U.S. colleges and universities in the 2016-2017 academic year, according to figures from the Association of International Educators, but it also threatens the 450,000 jobs they support and $37 billion they contribute to the U.S. economy.

International undergraduate and graduate students “serve as goodwill ambassadors in their home countries when they return,” and have long delivered economic benefit to the United States, said the comment letter. “For every 10% increase in international graduate students, U.S. patent applications increase by 4.5%.”

Members of the international scientific community have long sought to pursue studies and research in the United States, contributing to the intellectual reach of the nation’s academic institutions. Likewise, international organizations have sought to hold their meetings in the United States to expand and enrich their research collaborations. Such motivations, the comment letter noted, could be diminished by burdensome and time-consuming requirements dictated by the proposed changes.

The rate of visa applications to the United States are already in decline. For the first time in a decade, the State Department reported in January a 16% drop in international student visas and a 9% drop in visitor visas.

“International students and researchers have choices, and by adopting burdensome visa application requirements absent a clear, evidence-based rationale, the United States risks sending existing and potential partners and students elsewhere, thereby enriching those countries with their intellectual and economic contributions, resulting in a double loss for the United States,” stated the comment letter. 

The scientific and educational organizations also pointed to inconsistences between the State Department’s visa proposal and the Department of Homeland Security’s vetting initiative. Information presented in the Federal Register about the visa process said each application would prompt review at the time of application, while Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 16 that “individuals are [to be] continuously vetted.”

The visa proposal also raises many unanswered questions, including how international student applicants would be analyzed for inadvertently omitting a social media platform no longer in use from disclosure, and how privacy protections would be applied to the additional collected material. Fundamentally, the State Department proposal fails to articulate “any clear, evidence-based rationale for the expanded information collection,” the comment letter said.

“We are very concerned that if the additional questions are implemented, as proposed, international undergraduate and graduate students, scholars, and scientific collaborators may be further discouraged from coming to the United States,” the comment letter said. “Until a more appropriate or feasible way of conducting additional screening on the more than 14 million nonimmigrants and 710,000 immigrants to our country can be identified and tested, we believe the proposed expansion should be shelved.”

[Associated image/ hjl/Flickr CC BY 2.0]