In January 2008 ISCB embarked upon a first step investigation of the issue surrounding difficulties of our non-US citizen/permanent resident members in obtaining visas to enter the US, whether arriving from another country to participate in a scientific meetings and research, or when reentering the country after leaving to do the same elsewhere. A letter sent via email to all members can be read it its entirety here. Approximately 50 responses were received within just four days of sending the mail. The following summarizes the questions asked by ISCB and responses received from our members.
What we asked
- Are you experiencing delays getting visas or outright rejections of your applications?
- Are you seeing this problem from particular countries of citizenship?
- Specifically, what problems are you experiencing (i.e., difficulty getting consular appointments; delays in application processing; denial of visas; problems with US-VISIT system)?
- For each problem, is it due to not following or understanding the existing visa application 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 U.S. immigration system to follow its own policies?
- What change, if any, do you feel we ought to advocate?
Summary of problems reported
- Many people thanked us for doing this survey and carrying out the advocacy.
(See details below.)
- Some respondents requested anonymity and were afraid that they would be at risk from speaking out.
- Many researchers reported they now avoid coming to the US even if they can due to past personal experience or the experiences of colleagues.
- Many foreign researchers residing in the US avoid attending meetings outside the US and can't easily visit family in their home countries for fear of difficulties and delays reentering the country.
- Some speakers at conferences are no-shows due to visa problems.
- Some reported a loss of money spent on airfare, hotel, and/or conference registration when visas did not come through.
- It appears consular officials do not understand the science enough to make good decisions about security risks; incorrect assessments are made.
- TAL security clearance causes repeated problems and delays, often resulting in missing the opportunity for attending a conference or research appointment. This is triggered by certain key words like "molecular biology" being considered high risk. In at least one case, outright rejection of the application was experienced with language suggesting the applicant was a potential spy or saboteur.
- Several members encountered difficulty scheduling visa interviews, and/or had long waits of several weeks once scheduled.
- Obtaining a visa is an unnecessarily lengthy, time-consuming and costly process.
- Delays can and have caused lost salary and negatively impact the employing organization; jobs can be in danger.
- locked away for 24 hours with no drink; passport taken away; sent back to country of departure
- handcuffed, shackled, bruised, forcibly fingerprinted despite not needing a visa to travel - Canadian citizenship, born in Iran
Nationalities of respondents
Africa (unspecified country), Austria , Cameroon, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Pakistan, Europe (unspecified country), Germany, India, Iran, Nigeria, Russia, Serbia, Singapore, Thailand, The Netherlands, UK, USA
Recommendations from respondents
US lawmakers, consulate and immigration:
- Make it easier for non-US citizens living in the US to leave for a short time for meetings or visits home.
- Make it possible to extend the J-1 from within the US.
- Make visas valid for a longer time.
- Remove the 2-year 221(e) restriction.
- Simplify mechanism to receive multi-entry visa.
- Reduce turnaround time for visas.
- Treat visitors with respect and not rudeness.
- Perform the necessary MANTIS searches before the consular appointments.
- Provide information in writing about reasons for delays and estimated time to deal with them. Have a clear process with fixed (even if longer) timelines
Professional societies and conference organizers
- Educate embassy decision-makers about our field not being a security risk.
- Give scientists advice about how to explain what they do without triggering the security alert, or in such a way as to make it clear that they are not a security risk.
- Notify submitters to conferences earlier of acceptances.
- Give full refunds to attendees not able to make it due to visa problem.
- Lobby government for changes listed above.
- Provide direct help to conference attendees in processing their visas, including explaining what documents are necessary.
Appreciation expressed by respondents
- “I would also take this opportunity to thank ISCB for doing this for us. People have been discussing this for years in journals like Science or Nature. However, this is the first time that I've been reached from someone who really wants to do something for us. Thank you very much!!!” (China)
- “Thank you again for your initiative, by the way this made me to join ISCB, which I never did through many years!” (Russia)
- “I am very pleased you are doing this survey as we have been very negatively affected by this very problem.” (US researcher employing Indian computational biologist)
- “Thank you for the opportunity given me to give input in this issue.” (Cameroon)
- “I am glad to be able to make this contribution. I hope it does help.” (Cameroon)
- “Once more time thank you very much for your cooperation.” (Russia)
- “Thanks for this opportunity.” (Cameroon)
- “Thanks for your efforts!” (Canada)
- “Thanks for taking this on.” (USA)
- “Thank you for your time and letting me share my experience.” (Singapore)
- “I appreciate very much your attempts in tackling this problem. In fact, because of this, I've been prevented from attending the ISCB conference last July.” (China)
- “Hope this helps!” (Czech)
- “Thanks.” (China)
- “I hope that my answers are going to be useful for you.” (Serbia)
- “I would like to thank you all for your willingness to look into a problem that we foreign scientists have been facing, especially since the unfortunate events of 9/11. ... Once again, I thank you for bringing this issue out in the open. This is certainly an effort that will go a long way in enriching the visa experiences of many researchers seeking USA for their higher studies and career opportunities.” (India)
- “Thank you very much for your effort!” (China)
- “I really appreciate your time and effort. Best wishes to you and ISCB for the success on the advocation!” (China)
- “Appreciate the effort.” (Netherlands)
- “Thank you for this opportunity to discuss US visa problems.” (Russia)
- “First of all I would like to express my deepest appreciation for the initiative to help us with US visa problem. In our case this problem noticeably affects our research and results exchange.” (Russia)
Other important comments
- “Please, keep this correspondence as anonymous note since I don’t want to have extra trouble in future.” (Russia)
- “Please do not make my case public, this has already caused some damage to my career.” (born in Iran)
- “I had faced such a humiliating disappointment...” (Nigeria)