Tuesday, January 15, 2008

ISCB Members and US Visas

The International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB) is concerned about the ability of non-US scientists to participate in scientific meetings and research in the US. We believe this exchange of ideas benefits the scientific enterprise as well as the countries and individuals involved.

We have heard reports of ISCB members who are not non-US citizens having trouble coming to the US to work or study, and also having trouble leaving to visit family or attend scientific meetings (because it is hard to get back into the US). While the situation has improved over the last few years, there remain problems.

We have an opportunity, through our relationship with FASEB, to contribute to testimony in front of the House Science Committee in February about scientists' problems with visas. Your feedback must be in our hands by 25th January, 2008, in order for it to be useful in the Committee hearing. However, we will use any information we receive after that date for further advocacy, so please do not hesitate to send it in.

Can you help us by telling us of problems you or your colleagues have experienced with entry into the US? Please send email to policy@iscb.org (preferred, so that we can gather additional information from you if necessary), or post your experiences here (especially if you'd like to remain anonymous), or both.

We are particularly interested in answers to the following questions:

1) Are you experiencing delays getting visas or outright rejections of your applications?
2) Are you seeing this problem from particular countries?
3) Specifically, what problems are people experiencing (i.e., difficulty getting consular appointments; delays in application processing; denial of visas; problems with US-VISIT system)?
4) For each problem, is it due to visa applicants not following the existing guidelines and restrictions (such as not applying far enough ahead of time, failing to schedule a consular interview, providing incomplete applications, country-specific single entry reciprocity agreements), or is the problem a failure of the US immigration system to follow its own policies?
5) What change, if any, do you feel we ought to advocate?

ISCB urges its members who have had problems to contact the National Academies International Visitors Office (http://www7.nationalacademies.org/visas/index.html), and fill out the questionnaire. This office has been very helpful at interceding behind the scenes on behalf of scientists with the Dept. of State and Homeland Security. And the data they generate is very useful for making the case for improved visa processing.

Thank you,
The ISCB Public Affairs Committee


ISCB Public Affairs Chair said...

From one academic institution:

Security clearances are not uncommon among our graduate students and faculty. In some cases, it's not easy to predict when a security clearance will be required, but in many cases, we know when to expect them and can advise the students/scholars before they travel (if they contact us and ask for advice). These days, most clearances come in about 3 weeks, which is relatively quick. If a case languishes for 60 days, the University has a Government Relations Officer who can inquire into the case.

The difficult aspect of this is not knowing exactly what the government is looking for when deciding whether to proceed with a security clearance. There is a list called the "Technology Alert List" - it includes sensitive technologies which could be used against the US for military, economic, or other negative purposes. The current list is not
made public - and this makes predicting more difficult. Being able to advise students/scholars about the likelihood of undergoing a clearance would be most helpful, so we wish we had access to that list.

Response from the FASEB policy staffer:

FASEB has worked for quite some time on issues related to the Technology Alert List. Technologies on this list can trigger a Visas Mantis review – which is what I’m guessing your member is talking about when s/he refers to security clearances. This is actually one area where we’ve had tremendous success, because the average time for review is now only 14 days (not long ago it was 3-6 months) and supposedly only a pretty small percentage of applications submitted for Mantis review take more than 60 days.

I couldn’t agree more that having the TAL unpublished is very frustrating – it is a classified document for security reasons. In tentatively positive news, FASEB and other groups have been working on deemed export issues, which are directly related to this list – and managed to stop proposed regulations which would have greatly restricted foreign nationals working with controlled technologies in research labs. I testified last fall before the Deemed Export Advisory Committee (DEAC) which was tasked with examining this issue. In what appears to be a very positive step, the DEAC has released its final report and one of the things they’ve proposed is to do away with the Technology Alert List altogether. We will be urging the Commerce Department and other agencies to take this report very seriously.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your initiative trying to improvement the US visa processing.

The recently (retroactively from Nov 2006) added restriction that you must not have a gap in your *J1 Research Visa* causes problems. If continuing on a J1, you must assure that your current J1 does not expire between positions/universities. If you fail to do this, you cannot apply for a new J1 Research Visa within two years (this is unrelated to the two-year home requirement that you for instance get if you are on a Fulbright grant or similar).

There are many situations where people might want/have to go back to their home country, and then the time between position is the ideal time. The new rules don't allow you to do this.

A colleague of mine doing his PhD in Sweden came here to UC Berkeley for a short term (five months) visit Dec 2006-Apr 2007 and everything went really well and the visit resulted in several papers. He started to consider applying for a postdoc after finishing his PhD in Feb 2008. He was put on a J1 Research Visa, and in Jan 2007 we all was told about the new visa rules and that it applies retroactively. This means he will not be able to come here on J1 until May 2009! If he would have known, or they wouldn't have done this retroactively, he could have been given a J1 Short-term Visa and there would have been no problem.

In summary, the mandatory "no or two-year out of the country" rule applying to J1 Research Visa cause nothing but problems. Please lobby for it being removed.


Henrik Bengtsson
Postdoc, UC Berkeley

PS. I'm sorry if there are any factual errors in the above, but this is what I recall from a UC Berkeley workshop back in Jan 2007. DS.

Anonymous said...

Since most university international offices advise visa renewal in home countries, this has resulted in a reluctance to travel to a third country on an expired US visa. I don't have numbers, but the feeling is that there is a general reluctance by non-US scientists on J visas to travel internationally if their visas have expired (but they are still in legal status). This is especially harmful during the job seeking phase, if they are looking for jobs in a third country. At that stage the visas generally require renewal for re-entry.

Anonymous said...

Hi, thank you for this initiative!

I'm a PhD student in one of the EU-countries. Being a citizen of Russia I met with the following problems:

1. Applying for a visa to attend a conference takes too much time. For instance, such period of time as one month is not enough. I even missed the ISMB conference held in the US in 200?, don't remember which year, because of that. Perhaps (not sure though but it's not my business anyway), you[US-Americans] really need this security clearance things in order to ensure that an applicant is not a terrorist or something like that, but why does it take so long? As a comparison, please observe that getting a UK-visa takes me just one day (so I just come to the UK-consulate with all required documents and get a visa the same day)

2. So called the "two-year rule", which often supplements a J-visa, discourages researchers to make short-term (for 3 months and more) visits to the US.
Unfortunately, I had my own bad experience with this rule. I intended to do the internship for 3 months in one of the US-institutes which is funded by the US government. In fact, I had everything like research topic to work on, funding for these months, accommodation arranged, etc. except a visa. Technically, I could be granted either a B-visa () or a J-visa. The problem was that a J-visa was supplemented by the two-years rule (since my host was the place funded bu the US-government). I decided to avoid getting a J-visa and applied for a B-visa (in fact, it was withing the rules and my host institute had guests, on the same conditions like me, that visited it for the same period on a B-visa) but my application for a B-visa was rejected by the consulate officer who said that the only option for me is applying for a J-visa (which, in my case, automatically meant two-years rule). We complained actually but it didn't help so I just canceled my internship ...
In this way, I strongly believe this two-years rule is a real obstacle which prevents or complicates the short-term (for three months and more) research visits to the US.

Anonymous said...

The security clearance certainly is a barrier for which most Chinese students would consider before going to back China for even a short visit to their families, not to mention international conferences. To my knowledge we are given only one year multiple entry permission by the US visa office, which in comparison to other countries is really a short time frame. Any time we are informed of a conference we do not know if we are lucky enough to be in that time frame. As students for a 3-week home visit or 5-day conference, if we had to wait for a month before our visas got renewed, considerable delay in research and classes would ensue. This issue has gotten so serious that some of us are hesitating to go to conferences outside the US. We do want to go home, but usually our vacation time won't be nearly as long as the security clearance would take. Even if in some instances we have 1 month vacation, what we are seeing right now is that people are rushing to the visa offices immediately after they got off the plane, just to make sure they will get the visa before their 30-day vacation ends. This doesn't sound like a vacation in a light mood, and certainly makes the attendance of international conferences a great concern.

Chanchal said...

I have visited the US a total of 3 times - that is all. First time to attend a conference in 1977. There was no problem and I received the visa the same day or next day. It had a classification of B1.

Next time I applied for a J1 visa (1979) and I was interviewed and finally I was told that my visa has been denied. Of course no reasons were given. Do any one of the you remember seeing the US visa application form (those good old days)? There was a column for prostitutes and pimps (had a footnote that said...). I made an appeal by post to the ambassador in Delhi. After one month when I inquired about my appeal, I was told that my visa has been approved. I still do not know what was the reason for refusal in the first place OR what changed in me in the next one month.

Well, in both the cases above, I was living in Bombay and the US Consulate was only 1/2 hour by taxi. The consulate always received the telephone and some response was always given. Both professional and courteous.

My last visit was in 1995. It was a nightmare. I had to approach the Madras consulate and I cannot get any appointment over telephone. I went early in the morning and there was a big queue (and the black market- I hope you know) and I was asked to come again after 2 days. When I turned up again after 2 days (it is a 14 hr journey by train) they did not like my photo. I was asked to get a fresh one. I was asked silly questions and I gave silly answers. I was expecting that I will not be given the visa. But strange things do happen: I was told to go the next counter and pay some more money and I received the visa same day. It had a classification of B2.

Our former Vice-Chancellor, Prof Goverdhan Mehta, was refused a visa to attend a conference/ meeting in the US. The reasons are still unclear.

My overall impression is that the process lacks transparency.

Arun Gupta said...

Dear All,

I was scheduled to attend conference: Biocomp'07 in Las Vegas, which was scheduled from 25th to 28th June 2007. I registered myself for the conference for which the conference chair did kindly allow me a registration waiver. I filed my VISA application at Chennai embassy, India having an appointment scheduled on 25th May. I was suggested by the office staff of US-VISA office to apply for tourist VISA (I wonder why tourist VISA as I expected it to be related to studies or to science and knowledge somehow). My appointment was scheduled at 1330 hrs IST, whereas I was allowed to enter the consulate's office at around 1800hrs IST. After such a long wait, I appeared in front of the consular and presented all the required documents viz. a copy of my paper, acceptance of my paper with paper identity, registration details along with waiver details, bank details, proof of address and proof of studies, letter from chancellor of my university and various other relevant documents.

After having a very short look at my file, the consular returned my passport and gave me a piece of paper, saying he cannot allow me to visit US, as I was unable to prove strong bonds with my motherland. When I asked what his criteria on strong bonds with motherland are, he said that I must possess some immovable property on my name. Still I was not able to understand what it meant as I was unsure how immovable property can be considered as strong bond to ones’ motherland? Even I stated that "I have to come back in order to complete my under graduation degree, else I will be a no place guy" (that time I was appearing for my 7th semester towards completion of Bachelor in Engineering.) The other issue that they raised and questioned me was the urgency for me to attend the conference.

Facing all this, I spoke to the general chair of the conference Dr. Hamid Arabnia, and he convinced me that he will fax some application favoring my VISA application from the United States home office. He informed of having send several multiple copies of application. What happened is other embassies (as Dr. Hamid Arabnia told to me) are, based on the personal application from Dr. Hamid, the embassies called applicants and allotted them VISA. But here the case was different. My embassy asked me to re-schedule another appointment and asked me present all the documents again, as they done accept fax.

I am surprised that US claims to be the best partner in science and technology while I feel a few fellow representatives of US proves all the words to be false. That speaks that there is stringency in issuing Visas. But for a student who is an enthusiast and has zeal must be allowed to be given a visa and permit, that too for seven days I feel such tight-fisted practices help only to demoralize the participants and hinders in the scientific and mutual growth.


Arun Gupta

Malaya said...

People should read this.

Lara said...
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