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Visa Rules Still Complicate Postdocs' Lives

After several years of anxiety and frustration, the post-11 September travel difficulties facing noncitizen scientists coming to the United States may finally have begun to ease. Thanks to political pressure brought by universities, scientific societies, and high-tech companies after visa delays famously kept some scientists from attending meetings and accepting jobs, several recent policy changes and legislative initiatives now aim to reduce backlogs and simplify procedures. But it remains to be seen how much these developments will help international postdocs with the often complicated task of staying "in status" in the United States.

Immigration Rules and Needs of Science Don't Mix

The immigration rules that govern how international postdocs enter and live in this country often mesh poorly with the realities of scientific work. Most postdocs first arrive on J-1 (exchange visitor) visas, which are valid for no more than 3 years. But 5 years is the "recognized standard maximum time for a postdoc, particularly in the biological sciences," and finishing and publishing a substantial body of research in just 3 years is "challenging," says Derek Scholes, chair of the National Postdoctoral Association's (NPA) international committee. Moreover, he adds, some postdocs, "depending on the policies of the institution and the funding available," get an initial J-1 for only a single year. So postdocs hoping to maximize the career benefit of their appointments here generally need to arrange for more time, a process that can involve detailed paperwork and substantial fees.

Extending a single-year J-1 is fairly routine, Scholes says, although "there can be complications." Also, although an extension past 3 years is theoretically possible, "there are provisos that make it not work." Postdocs hoping to stay longer generally try to switch to the H1-B (specialty worker) visa, which has a maximum validity for 6 years but requires clearance from the home country, plus other waivers and documentation.

Scholes notes a further complication: "The stipulations of the H1-B visa are different from [those of] the J-1," he says. For example, the J-1 allows the visa holder's spouse to work, but the H1-B does not. What's more, he says, "if you're funded by a certain mechanism, you may not be able to be paid the same way if your visa type changes." For all these reasons, NPA favors extending the J-1 to a total of 5 years, Scholes says, adding that the idea has had support within the State Department.

But if entering and staying in the United States present obstacles, leaving poses problems, too. A visa holder who travels to another country to present a paper at a scientific meeting--even to attend to a family emergency back home--has no automatic right of reentry. "Depending on your situation, your country, the embassy, the consulate, and the backlog," Scholes says, getting the needed approvals to return can take significant time. "I've spoken to postdocs who've said, 'I didn't go to a meeting because I was worried ... I'd be stuck outside [the United States] ... for 6 months."

Delays arise because, before granting or renewing a visa, the State Department conducts "a variety of interagency reviews," says Kelly Shannon, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Consular Affairs.. Based on the information an applicant supplies about his or her background, State queries "other government agencies, including law enforcement [and] intelligence," for "derogatory information" about the individual. Checks may cover criminal record, military service, government employment, and more, but particularly relevant to postdocs is the Mantis clearance, which is required for scientists doing advanced work in a number of fields. Established in 1998, this program concerns "technology transfer and nonproliferation," Shannon said.

Then, "in the spring of 2002, ... we instituted ... Condor checks" related to terrorism, Shannon told Next Wave. (The animal names are part of a shorthand used within the State Department.) Condor increased "the number of reviews we did through the same system" that was already handling all other visa clearances. Soon "there were significant delays for a very small number of people in the summer of 2002 through possibly the early spring of 2003," says Stephen A. "Tony" Edson, managing director of the State Department's Visa Office. These affected "a disproportionate number of people in the sciences, in particular in some of the more cutting-edge sciences ... subject to the Mantis checks." But these widely publicized delays were exceptions that "unfortunately colored the whole dialog" about post-11 September border security, he insists. Without wanting to "downplay the problem," he calls the widespread perception of inordinate slowdown "largely an image thing."

Scientists who waited months for their visas may be forgiven for disagreeing, however. A random survey done by the General Accounting Office (GAO) between April and June 2003 found Mantis clearance took an average of 67 days. Applicants received notification of approval, on average, about 90 days after initiating the process. "Many Visas Mantis cases had been pending 60 days or more," GAO reported.

The State Department, "working with our other agency partners," Edson says, is trying "to return Mantis in particular to a screening process ... of reliable, predictable duration. Since the program began in '98, people had known that usually if they applied 30 days in advance, they were OK." The goal now is to "get back to a point where, except in very rare cases [with] significant nonproliferation concerns," 30 days will once again suffice for the needed checks. To that end, Shannon says, State "has invested about $1 million in working to have a better system" for doing clearances. At present, she says, "we've got about 80% [of clearances] down to 3 weeks, ... less time than we did prior to September 11. ... That further 20%, we are working on." Shannon says she expects that the proportion of clearances completed within 3 weeks will rise above the present 80%.

Whether scientists are generally experiencing such speedy service is less clear, because they appear to fall disproportionately outside the fortunate 80%. "Inclusive of Condor, Mantis, Donkey, Bear, Eagle, Hawk ... the whole menagerie, only 2.2% of visa applicants had to go through these checks last year," Edson says. But applicants requiring such clearances include "a significant portion" of people hoping to work in American research laboratories.

U.S.-Funded Scientists Catch a Break

A break in the Mantis logjam did appear in June, when reentry rules were eased for noncitizen scientists working at U.S. government labs or on U.S. government funding. Their Mantis clearances will now be valid for a full year, instead of having to be repeated for each trip outside the United States. Scientists with private-sector jobs or funding, however, will still need a new Mantis check every time they leave the country. In July, some J-1 visa holders seeking transfer to H1-B status also got a bit of relief through a temporary extension that allows them to remain in this country while awaiting their new visas, rather than having to return to their homelands.

Pressure for much more thoroughgoing reform has also been building in recent months. On 12 May, 25 scientific and educational organizations (including NPA) called for "a visa system that does not hinder ... international exchange and cooperation." While expressing "support of a secure visa system" and recognizing that the "Departments of State and Homeland Security have responded to some of our concerns by taking steps to the make the visa process less cumbersome and more transparent," the coalition proposed six specific improvements: Mantis clearances that last for a scientist's entire stay in the United States, better reentry procedures for visa holders returning to the country, priority for visa applicant who have waited more than 30 days, greater consistency in handling applications, less need for repetitive renewals, and a simplified fee system.

Real changes will require congressional action, however, and two lawmakers have recently proposed legislation aimed at making them. On 25 June, Representative Mike Capuano (D-MA), who represents Cambridge, introduced the Furthering Education and Research through Mantis Improvement (FERMI) Act. Named for the immigrant atomic physicist and Nobel laureate, FERMI would extend Mantis clearances to 3 years and permit scientists to apply for revalidation without having to return to their home countries. State, Homeland Security, and FBI would also have to improve information sharing and processing.

On 21 July, Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN) introduced a bill that takes a much broader approach. Inspired by the plight of a Ugandan student awarded a scholarship to a college in St. Paul but denied a visa on a technicality, the International Student and Scholar Act would direct the departments of Commerce, Education, Homeland Security, and State to develop a "strategic plan" to encourage students, scholars, and scientists to come to the United States. The departments would also have to simplify visa criteria and processing.

With the short time and packed schedule facing the current Congress, however, these bills have about as much chance of becoming law in the near future as a complicated experiment has of going flawlessly on the first try. Within the scientific and academic communities, attention to immigration issues remains high, but encouraging words seem unlikely to abate the difficulties facing international scientists, including many postdocs, anytime soon.