The United States last week changed its visa rules to make it easier for foreign students and scientists working on sensitive technologies to reenter the country after overseas trips. The new policy, announced last week by the State Department, extends the validity of security clearances, now 1 year, to 4 years for international students and 2 years for foreign scientists.

Until now, foreign scholars working in certain fields had to undergo an extensive interagency security review--known as a Visas Mantis check--every time they wanted to reenter the United States. Only those who had received a clearance within the preceding 12 months were exempt. In the tightened security environment after the 2001 terrorists attacks, that procedure resulted in major delays for thousands of international graduate students and researchers returning to the United States after visiting their home countries or attending conferences overseas. After complaints from scientific and educational associations, federal officials promised to extend the validity of Mantis clearances ( Science, 27 August 2004, p.1222).

"We now have better information sharing between federal agencies and systems to track whether students and researchers have changed their fields of study," says C. Stewart Verdery, outgoing assistant secretary for Border/Transportation Security Policy at the Department of Homeland Security and one of the officials who worked on the extension. "Given those factors, it seems like a redundancy to do repeat security checks for the same individual."

The new policy "eliminates a lot of uncertainty for foreign students in the United States," says Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities. More broadly, he says, "it sends a message that international students and scholars are welcome here."

Scientists in other countries who visit the United States often will also benefit from another change that extends the validity of a Mantis clearance for such visits from the duration of a single visit to a year. Verdery says the change ensures that "security constraints don't make the United States less attractive as a venue for scientific conferences."

Reposted with permission from Science News, 18 February 2005