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State Department addresses delays in obtaining visas

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2009
Gary Boas,

In the past year, researchers and students hoping to enter or re-enter the US have faced sometimes months-long delays in obtaining visas. Now, however, after a chorus of complaints from university groups and scientific organizations, the US Department of State has promised to address the problem.

According to a New York Times report, David Donahue, deputy assistant secretary of state for consular services, said in early June that the department had already begun to tackle the backlog of applications. He noted that additional staff had been enlisted to do so and that new procedures had been put into place to reduce the wait time for visas. Eventually, he said, routine requests should be handled within two weeks.

The US State Department has announced efforts to address issues with the visa application process. Foreign investigators have experienced significant delays in the past year when trying to enter or re-enter the US.

The delays have created trouble for university research centers and technology companies alike. Many of the top graduate schools are populated by foreign students and postdocs, and research projects have languished as they wait for weeks or even months to be allowed back into the States. Similarly, many companies employ foreign talent and, when those workers are stuck abroad, the companies suffer as well. This is of concern especially in tough economic times, when continued innovation in science and technology is needed to keep the US competitive.

A week after the State Department’s announcement, a group of science, academic and engineering organizations, including the Association of American Universities, the National Academy of Sciences and SPIE – The International Society for Optics and Photonics, issued a statement praising the department’s stepped-up efforts but urging the federal government to do more to improve the visa process for foreign researchers.

“Talent in knowledge-based companies must be able to move freely across international borders for these companies to maintain competitiveness,” said M.J. Soileau, vice president for research and commercialization at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and chairman of the SPIE Committee on Engineering, Science and Technology Policy. “Easy, efficient, sensible visa processes and policies are absolutely critical.”

The statement also included recommendations on improving the visa process and, thus, building upon the “positive actions” by the federal government. The signing organizations suggested, for example, reducing repetitive processing of applications for established scientists who visit the US regularly to attend conferences and to conduct research with collaborators here. Also, efforts to renegotiate visa reciprocity agreements between the US and certain key countries should be expanded and a high-level interagency panel convened to review all visa-related policies and procedures implemented since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

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