Rekha Rajaram was looking forward with relish to visiting family and friends and immersing herself in the food and culture of her childhood. She was planning her first trip home to India since getting her Ph.D. from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. She wasn't planning on getting stranded in India, tied up in immigration security checks for months while her husband went back to the United States without her.
"I thought it would be a pretty straightforward process to get my visa renewed because I had been in the U.S. since 2001," says Rajaram, an applications engineer specializing in semiconductor chemistry who works for a San Jose, California-based technology start-up at a client's site in the greater New York area.
But Rajaram found herself tangled up in a security-vetting process that took 100 days to resolve. She's in good, if unhappy, company: An apparently growing number of foreign scientists, despite having current, valid work permits, are being stranded outside the country while several U.S. agencies perform background checks.
In the past year, the waits have become so long and so common that foreign scientists working in the United States fear leaving the country lest they find themselves stranded, unable to return to their labs and careers. So many foreign students and scientists have found themselves mired in visa delays that some started a Facebook group to commiserate and document their difficulties.
This spring, such visa delays prompted the U.S. government to modify its handling of these inquiries and to dedicate more staff to processing visa applications. The goal: to bring the processing time down to 2 weeks.
The U.S. State Department acknowledges that there was a problem but insists that it has been fixed. "This was a problem that we were having last year," says David Donahue, deputy assistant secretary for visa services in the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department. Most visas, he says, should now be processed in 10 business days as a result of procedural modifications. "We put a clock on ourselves and committed to completing" visa reviews in 2 weeks. "We are confident this will not happen again."
Still, the scientific community remains concerned that such visa hassles will ultimately harm U.S. competitiveness by feeding fears of foreign scientists and students about working in the United States. "We have great universities in this country, but the perception that the U.S. is a difficult place to come to is hurting us," says Amy Scott, assistant vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities (AAU) in Washington, D.C. "People are finding opportunities elsewhere."
Unfortunately, the only way to get a passport stamped with a current visa is to do it at a consulate outside the United States. Under U.S. law, the Department of State is responsible for issuing visas, and most visas are issued at one of the Department of State's embassies or consulates abroad. Visa requests, therefore, must be made from overseas. There's no opportunity to plan ahead. A consular officer decides if you are qualified for a visa.
Rajaram's saga began when she graduated from Stanford and was granted approval for an O-1 visa to work as a researcher. Her paperwork gave her the right to work in the United States as long as she didn't leave the country with plans to return. In order to get back into the United States, she would need to schedule an interview at a U.S. consulate and have her passport stamped with her visa.
In December 2008, she and her husband, who works in finance and also needed a visa renewal, traveled to India for that purpose. "When I got to the consulate in India, I was asked what I do, and then I was told that they couldn't process my visa because I needed to undergo administrative processing."
Told to expect a 2- to 3-week wait, Rajaram stayed in India while her husband, who received his visa that day, returned to the United States. Her employer allowed her to work remotely from India for the first month. One month became two, and she was forced to take unpaid leave. During that period, she discovered that she "knew nearly 15 people, all of them Indian or Chinese, who had also got stuck in administrative processing."
Ups and downs
The visa troubles Rajaram and other foreign scientists experienced have a long history. Since the Cold War, foreign scientists and students from any country could face increased scrutiny if their field of study overlaps with sensitive technology categories outlined on the Technology Alert List (TAL). That list was classified in 2003, but before it was classified it included nuclear physics, biotechnology, semiconductor science, and urban planning, among other disciplines. Foreign scientists from China, Russia, Israel, India, Pakistan, and other countries face increased scrutiny--partly, it appears, because these countries possess or are seeking to possess nuclear capabilities (Science, 21 November 2008, p. 1172).
In the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks, the U.S. government enacted new security policies that increased the likelihood that scientists would face scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, FBI, CIA, and other federal agencies.
"Before 9/11, it was a fairly routine procedure that took between 10 days and 2 weeks," says Albert Teich, director of Science and Policy Programs at AAAS, Science Career's publisher, noting that agencies had to object to a visa if they wanted to slow the process. "After 9/11, every agency had to give their approval before a visa was issued. That is a much harder thing."
Predictably, processing times slowed, and by 2003 they had climbed to several months, prompting a group of scientific societies that included the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), AAU, AAAS, and others to call for changes in the visa system. "Fortunately, we saw the wait times drop back to 2 or 3 weeks," Teich says.
In 2004, the NAS Board on International Scientific Organizations began to collect data about visa delays on a Web site. Those data show that the number of visa delays jumped again in 2008.
The result: More foreign scientists were unable to attend conferences and symposia, students were unable to start degree programs, and scientists like Rajaram were unable to do their jobs.
"It was extremely frustrating," says Aspi Kolah, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, who was stranded in his native India for 4.5 months while trying to convert his J-1 visa to an H-1B visa. "The department wanted me back, and I was worried about funding I was about to lose. It caused real problems for me and my department."
"You may have a student finishing up his or her Ph.D., and that person gets a paper accepted to an international scientific meeting," says Chris Bargerstock, assistant director for the office for International Students & Scholars at MSU. "It's a great career opportunity, but they have to be worried about whether they are going to get their visa in time for a meeting. They've invested so much time in their education and projects, they aren't going to risk it. It means they are stuck here."
Also troubling is the potential for the visa system as it currently operates to harm the research enterprise in the United States by stymieing the flow of scientific information and the formation of international collaborations. On 10 June 2009, a group of organizations representing higher education, science, and engineering, including AAAS, NAS, AAU, and others, outlined recommendations to revise the visa system to both maintain security and encourage the entry of the best and most qualified scientists. These recommendations included establishing protocols to make treatment of visa applicants more consistent by regularly training consular staff abroad, reviewing and streamlining TAL to include subject areas that clearly have explicit implications for national security, adding transparency to the visa system, and convening a panel to evaluate whether the visa-related policies put into effect after 9/11 are effective.
"There are potentially very serious consequences to the U.S. because we are pretty heavily dependent on foreign nationals to conduct science in this country," says AAAS's Teich. "It's important to take an overall look at the big picture and ask whether how we are handling these security issues is costing us more in terms of negative impacts on research and connections with the international community than it is benefiting us."
One item obviously missing from those recommendations is allowing visa holders to renew their visas and undergo administrative processing while they are still in the United States. Teich calls the current system of sending people out of the country to renew their visas "pretty silly" and notes that scientific societies have suggested that to the State Department in the past, but "it was clear from our discussions that such a change was a nonstarter."
Whether these suggested changes to the visa system are undertaken, foreign scientists must decide if they will risk leaving the United States when their visas have expired or stay put. They will hear conflicting advice.
"I can't say that we have reached 100% of [visas being processed] in 10 days, but it is very close," says Donahue. "I would feel very confident that [foreign scientists] can take their vacations and go home. They should go to the U.S. consulate on the first day they return and know that it will take 2 or 3 weeks. And if they are having problems, we want to hear about it." Donahue notes that scientists and students having visa problems can contact the State Department at its Web site.
Even if the procedural changes that have been undertaken resolve the issue, it will take time for foreign students to feel confident about leaving. "There is a ripple effect," AAU's Scott says. "After a while, people will feel a little more comfortable because they aren't hearing horror stories."
Protein crystallographer Mishtu Dey, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute research specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, is facing that decision now. "I'm afraid that if I go home to India to renew my visa, I will get stuck in administrative processing. It's totally a gamble, but I think it's one I'm going to take."
Photo (top): Baigal Byamba
Lisa Seachrist Chiu is a science writer in Washington, D.C., and author of When a Gene Makes You Smell Like a Fish ... and Other Amazing Tales about the Genes in Your Body.