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NATURE|Vol 461|3 September 2009 CAREERS

Visa problems continue to frustrate scientists seeking entry to the
United States. Karen Kaplan investigates the roadblocks.

cientists, postdocs and students scientists, scholars and students (see in the changes at the end of May, by late July
planning to travel to the United Nature 459, 1157; 2009). The US National university administrators, immigration
States to work or study need two Postdoctoral Association also called for lawyers and others who work with visa
things before applying for a visa: regulatory changes earlier this year, including applicants had noticed little difference. They
time and patience. a new non-immigrant visa for postdocs. advise that an applicant should still allow up
Despite recent efforts by federal agencies to In response, the US Department of State, to six months for visa approval, although they
improve and accelerate the visa-application which handles student and exchange visa acknowledge that in many cases, the visa will
process — including adding staff and applications, brought in a combination of be issued within two to four weeks.
setting shorter waiting times — it still needs new procedures and extra staff and resources “It may be a little slow, it may not be the
legislative and regulatory reform, say those to expedite the process and chip away at the easiest interview, but people are getting
who are familiar with the system. Many backlog that has contributed to delays. through it and getting here — provided
consider it to be a labyrinthine muddle of These procedures are specifically intended they start their application paperwork in a
requirements and regulations. Delays of up to to address those applications that require timely fashion,” says Roger Chalkley, senior
half a year are not uncommon, even with the special ‘administrative processing’ — which is associate dean for biomedical research
processing improvements brought in to clear triggered when the applicant’s work is linked education and training at Vanderbilt
the backlog and speed procedures after the to sensitive technology, weaponry or military University School of Medicine in Nashville,
terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 forced applications, or if the applicant is from a Tennessee. The school admits about 75
a visa clampdown. country identified as a “sponsor of terror” non-US graduate students and 250 non-US
The consequences of such a system or as a nuclear-proliferation concern. Most postdocs every year. “There have been
are potentially much more damaging of these applications are now expected to hiccups, and it took a while, but things are
than inconveniencing a few researchers get through the system in a maximum of ten getting resolved,” he says.
and students seeking to work or study working days, according to David Donahue,
temporarily in the country. In a January 2009 director of the public-affairs office at the state Processing problems
report, the US National Research Council department. He says that routine applications Administrators still warn of persistent delays
called for a thorough revamp of existing that don’t require special security checks for those scientists or students already in
visa regulations, saying that the current account for 97% of the annual total — which the United States who need a different visa
system is quashing international scientific last year reached some 6.5 million — and from the one they currently have. That
collaborations (see Nature 457, 752; 2009). should take well under 30 days. Students in could include a graduating student who
Some researchers are worried that the delays particular are benefiting from the shorter needs an exchange visa, or a postdoc who is
might mean collaborators give up coming processing times, says Donahue. “We are offered a permanent job and thus needs an
altogether (see ‘Unwelcome guest’, overleaf). doing everything we can to ensure that employment visa.
In June, 31 US academic and research students don’t miss the beginning of their Such employment visas — generally
associations asked the federal government to study programmes,” he says. H-1Bs for scientists — are handled by the US
streamline the visa process for international Although the state department brought Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
© 2009 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved
CAREERS NATURE|Vol 461|3 September 2009

Juhn-Jong Lin, a condensed-matter often as he liked within that period. to about two months, and recently ‘administrative processing’. Herzog
physicist and professor at the But things became more difficult ballooned again to four months. says applications singled out for
Institute of Physics at the National after the terrorist attacks of 11 “No one knows why,” Lin says. such processing are known to
Chiao Tung University in Hsinchu, September 2001, and worsened In 2005, Lin planned to attend cause problems. “Those checks
Taiwan, hasn’t been to the United again about two years ago, Lin says. the American Physical Society’s can take weeks and months,”
States for two years. And he doesn’t “After 9/11, I had to apply in March meeting as usual and he says, “especially if [the
plan to return any time soon. person — and I always got only applied for a visa about eight weeks federal agencies reviewing the
Lin used to hand his passport a one-year visa,” he says. Every in advance. The document was not applications] are concerned about
to a travel agent in Taiwan who year he had to complete a lengthy issued in time for Lin to attend. espionage or terrorism.”
would apply on his behalf for a application, prepare a detailed Lin’s experience is not unusual, Lin, for his part, says he has given
J-1 exchange visa. Without fail, CV, have a new specific-sized says immigration lawyer Paul up. “I no longer want to try,” he says
he would receive a five-year visa, photo taken, undergo an in-person Herzog, who works in Los Angeles, of applying in the future for a US
which made it easy for him to attend interview 80 kilometres away in California. Lin’s work as a physicist visa. Lin has now formed fruitful
the American Physical Society’s Taipei and pay an application fee of means his visa application is likely collaborations with physicists in
biannual conferences and to travel about US$150. Waiting times for to be flagged for a Visa Mantis Japan, China and Europe. “There
to and from the United States for visa approval stretched from a week screen, one of several types of is no longer much incentive to visit
any other work-related reason as or two before 11 September 2001 security checks required for the United States,” he says. K. K.

and have lengthier processing times than the the CIA investigate an application for links also be a gateway for people with the talent
student or exchange visa. Chris Rhatigan, to terrorism, espionage or illegal transfer of our economy and society requires.” Before
a spokeswoman for US Citizenship and sensitive technology. September 2001, Mantis clearances totalled
Immigration Services, part of the DHS, says “Things aren’t as bad as they were right several dozen a year. Last year, under
H-1B approval is usually received in two after 9/11,” says immigration lawyer Mantis, federal screeners reviewed some
months, possibly longer depending on the Elizabeth Goss of legal firm Tocci, Goss and 55,000 applications. “If all these Mantis
applicant. “We don’t post processing times,” Lee in Boston, Massachusetts, “but there are clearances are being approved, it must
she says. “Each application is reviewed on a still issues. And there’s really no one you can mean you’re reviewing a lot that don’t need
case-by-case basis.” talk to. That can be frustrating.” review,” says Johnson.
Applicants already in the United States Still, officials say that further
on a J-1 exchange visa who can’t support Heightened security improvements are on the way. As well as
themselves financially while they wait for In 2003, special security checks took the state department’s efforts to speed up
H-1B approval must return to their home roughly 75 days to complete, according to Visa Mantis processing, some US embassies
country. However, the process can be fast- independent federal investigators. After have updated their websites to show the visa
tracked if their institution pays a ‘premium- congressional pressure, the waiting time for waiting times at consulates in every city.
processing’ fee of US$1,000, which cuts the Visa Mantis applicants was cut to about 15 An inter-agency group led by the DHS that
wait from 2–4 months to 15 days or fewer. days by the end of 2004. But in the past year, meets to discuss visa issues convened most
University administrators say, however, delays on Mantis applications lengthened recently in July, and has met at the White
that such an expenditure cannot be made again to between 4 and 12 months. House with the National Security Council to
routinely, especially by a research-intensive Although the Mantis checks make sense identify other areas of the system that need
institution that might employ dozens of in principle, many say that in practice they improvement. “We are always asking, ‘Can
non-US postdocs every year. clog up a process that should move far more we do better?’” Donahue says.
“It’s a significant cost to the sponsoring freely. “The visa process should serve as a Legislative changes may also be coming.
institution,” says Mary Anne Timmins, barrier to people with criminal or terroristic According to Amy Scott, assistant vice-
administrative director of biomedical intent,” says Vic Johnson, senior adviser for president for federal relations at the
postdoctoral programmes at the University public policy at NAFSA, the Association Association of American Universities in
of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Other visa of International Educators. “But it should Washington DC, a Senate bill could be
charges on top of the premium-processing introduced this month that would streamline
fee can push the total cost of bringing in one the visa process for scientists and students.
non-US postdoc to more than $3,000, she says. Although Scott says it is likely that the
Those affected by delays or the requirement bill’s passage will be delayed, she notes
to return home often wonder whether that President Barack Obama is calling for
they should even go through such an immigration reform by no later than next
upsetting process, says Peter Palese, head year.
of microbiology at the Mount Sinai School Donahue and Rhatigan say their agencies
of Medicine in New York, who works with recognize that streamlining the visa process
international postdocs. “Other countries make allows for the free flow of scientists and their
it easier,” he says. “We are harming ourselves.” ideas into the United States — a positive
Some administrators and others say that outcome for all. “We will continue to listen
despite improvements to the process for all to the science community and try to figure
types of special security checks — including out ways to address their concerns,” Donahue
those conducted under Visa Mantis, the says. “There have been long waits for a variety
check that most commonly affects scientists, of reasons. We have made a great effort to
science students and postdocs — wait times change that.” ■
are still far longer than ten days. Under a Karen Kaplan is assistant editor of
Mantis check, federal agencies including Naturejobs.
the state department, the DHS, the FBI and Physicist Juhn-Jong Lin has given up on US visas. See Editorial, page 12.

© 2009 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved