The U.S. government has been tightening restrictions on student visas since the September 11 terrorist attacks. The increased security has hit America's prestigious research institutions, where half of the students in science and technical fields are foreign-born. At a hearing this week, some members of Congress said the visa problems put the country at risk.
State Department officials are caught between competing demands in the post-September 11 world. The fact that several of the 9-11 hijackers were in the United States on student visas became a national security issue.
Before September 11, the State Department granted student visas automatically if no agency raised an objection within 30 days. But at a hearing Wednesday before the House Committee on Science, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Janice Jacobs, said times have changed.
"In the post-9-11 environment, we do not believe that the issues at stake allow us the luxury of erring on the side of expeditious processing," she explained.
Ms. Jacobs said the State Department now insists on hearing from law enforcement before issuing these visas.
She said she recognizes most foreign students in scientific and technical fields are coming to the United States for legitimate reasons. But, Ms. Jacobs added, not all of them are.
"This includes individuals who may be coming to unlawfully obtain and export sensitive technology or information, especially if it relates to the development or spread of weapons of mass destruction," she explained.
The extra scrutiny the department is giving to foreign students in science and technical fields is causing backlogs and delays.
Some committee members say holding up student visas on national security grounds may itself be a threat to national security. For example, during World War II, German, Italian, Polish, and Russian-born scientists were instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb.
But Congressman David Wu told the committee, some highly qualified scientists were excluded from the United States during the cold war, when fear of Communism influenced government policy.
"The Chinese scientist who is the father of the People's Republic of China's rocketry program was driven out of the United States by McCarthyism," he said. "And I would hate to see that we engage in a pattern of conduct now out of fear that would damage our national interest and help our adversaries."
Committee members and witnesses pointed out that the United States owes much of its status as an economic superpower to top-notch foreign-born scientists.
Ms. Jacobs pointed out that the State Department has hired more staff and is using more technology in a bid to speed up visa applications.
But American Council on Education president David Ward said the State Department's procedures have not been working smoothly. He said there have been frequent technical problems, including lost, misdirected, and inaccessible records. Government personnel have not been trained to understand the new visa regulations, or to use new computer software.
And, Mr. Ward noted that nearly a million new applications will enter the system before August as college application season begins.
"We do not know whether the capacity will be stretched to the breaking point with this sudden increase in volume, because with this low level of volume it has obviously been struggling," he said.
According to Mr. Ward, an even more serious issue is the system's unpredictability.
"One can deal with predictable delays, which could be understood by a logjam," he said. "But if there is unpredictability in the system, and no rationality in why one visa is delayed and another is not, I think that unpredictability is a serious problem."
Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman stressed the problems do not stop once the students arrive. "They have difficulty leaving the country, either to attend scientific meetings or to visit their families, and then find that there are extended delays in their ability to re-enter the United States after their visits outside the country," she said.
According to Ms. Tilgman, it not only interrupts their studies, but because many graduate students are also teachers, it also disrupts other classes.
If future students know they may run into hassles if they apply to schools in the United States, Ms. Tilgman said they'll go elsewhere.
"These individuals, by virtue of their quality, have options, have opportunities to study anywhere in the world," she explained. "I really believe that if this country is to sustain its international leadership role in science and technology, it must continue to engage the very best students and scholars from around the world."
The State Department's Janice Jacobs stressed that the department is doing everything it can to make the process smoother. "But I do not foresee a return to the more-rapid processing we enjoyed when we thought the threat to our country was less than it turned out to be," she added.
She said visa officials have had to make changes much more quickly after September 11, and that caused problems. But, she said, the system is improving, and most cases are now processed in 30 days or less.