Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 26  |  Friday, April 25, 2003  |  Number 7
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Marburger on visas: "We have to make [the system] work."

WASHINGTON,D.C.— John Marburger, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and science advisor to the President, underscored the impact of the visa backlog on foreign students and scientists by making it the sole subject of his keynote address to the AAAS Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy.

“We’re looking for needles in haystacks, and we have to go through lot of hay,” he said. “The system is not set up for it, but we know we have to make it work.”

Marburger stressed that “the Administration values the contribution foreign scientists and students make to the nation’s scientific enterprise,to our economy,and to the appreciation of American values throughout the world.”He pointed to similar language at the beginning of Homeland Security Presidential Directive 2 (HSPD2),issued by President Bush on Oct.29,2001.He also admitted that the directive ’s strong language on ending the “abuse ”of student visas “left many of us struggling to make that consistent with the opening statements.”

Marburger acknowledged that increased scrutiny has led to a small but significant rise in visa rejections,in two primary categories:“failure to establish intent to return to the home country,”and “application does not comply with [Immigration Service ]requirements.” He added that no other categories come “within an order of magnitude ”as causes for rejection.

Rejections in the second category can hinge on something as simple as filling out forms carelessly, Marburger said. But establishing intent to return is critical,because the legal burden of proof is on the applicant to demonstrate ties that would result in leaving the U.S.when the visa expires.

Marburger admitted some might consider this policy contradictory to stated official intentions of attracting the most talented students and scientists from abroad.But he added: “Student visas are not immigrant visas or temporary worker visas,and applicants should be aware of this.”

Applicants for visas report waiting 90 days or more for a process that formerly took less than 30 days,effectively ruling out short-term plans to attend science conferences or meetings.Marburger asserted that the backlog stemmed not from the small increase in rejections,but from the large increase in cases screened for possible terrorist ties or for possible intent to evade laws on exporting technology or sensitive information.

The data on terrorism screening is classified,Marburger said, but he presented compelling numbers in the other category. In 2000,Marburger said,only 1,000 cases were reviewed on the basis of export sensitivity.There were 2,500 reviews in 2001,and 14,000 reviews in 2002.He said that both the State Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are now devoting full-time staffers to clear up the backlog,although there are at least 1,000 cases in the system at any given time.

Marburger said he has directed OSTP to make the visa backlog a priority.He cited a coordinated effort among OSTP and six offices and agencies last fall,clearing out nearly 10,000 backlogged visa applications.He also said it was important for universities and other institutions to provide specific data on how they are being affected.Marburger urged academic institutions to take three helpful steps: provide information on the visa process,to urge applicants to fill out forms carefully,and “to be honest about what the system is trying to accomplish.”

“The backlogs result from screening applicants more rigorously,”Marburger said,“not from policies to exclude applicants.”

—Mike Perricone

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