President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Visas in an Age of Heightened Security
May 14, 2003
September 11 has made us all more aware of the need to consider the national security implications of our work. In thinking carefully about security issues in our research laboratories, the scientific and research communities are trying to balance two exceedingly important objectives: to minimize the risk that our laboratories and the materials in them will be used for terrorist purposes, and to maximize the likelihood that the American scientific enterprise will flourish. As both Tom Ridge, the head of the new Department of Homeland Security, and Jack Marburger ’60, the President’s science adviser, have said recently, a robust scientific enterprise is absolutely essential to this country’s security and economic vitality.
The success of the American scientific enterprise depends on our ability to continue to attract the very best foreign students and scholars. For over 50 years foreign-born scientists have helped the United States achieve preeminence in science and technology. At Princeton, more than 40% of our graduate students come from other countries and they make important contributions in the humanities and social sciences as well as in the natural sciences and engineering. Two-thirds of all foreign students in the U.S. who receive a Ph.D. in science or engineering stay in this country, contributing their creativity and productivity in academia and industry, and nearly 40 percent of the current U.S. engineering faculty is foreign-born.
I recently testified before the House of Representatives Committee on Science about the impact on research and education of recent changes in the international student and scholar visa programs. There is a risk that current practices may undermine our ability as a nation to attract the very best students and scholars from around the world. These individuals have many alternatives, and they frequently are courted aggressively by universities and research institutions in other countries. It is clearly in our long-term interest to be sure that they can do their work here.
My specific concerns were as follows:
• The guidance currently provided to consular officials by the State Department makes it almost certain that students and scholars with interests in the sciences and engineering will experience difficulties, or at least delays, in obtaining visas, no matter how non-threatening their work may be. At Princeton we have advised our international students and scholars to build in time for delays, but even so we have had a number of cases that have been difficult to resolve. The State Department is seeking better ways to provide advice and training for consular staff.
• Foreign students and faculty already in the U.S. who leave the country to attend professional meetings or family events have experienced prolonged waiting times (six weeks to several months) when they try to re-enter the U.S. In many cases these students and scholars are scheduled to teach classes or continue ongoing research upon their return. There must be ways to conduct security reviews in advance so these students and scholars are not delayed as long as they complete their travels within a stipulated period of time.
• The proposed new Interagency Panel on Advanced Science Security (IPASS) could provide an opportunity for the Department of Homeland Security to work with scientific agencies and universities to develop a screening program that better differentiates between those with malicious intent and those who would contribute productively while in the U.S. Alternatively, IPASS could simply add another layer of bureaucracy and further exacerbate the visa backlog. Even though this system was announced nearly a year ago, details of how it will work have not been released and universities have not been involved in the planning.
• While Princeton supports the transition from an outdated (and ineffective) paper tracking system of foreign students to an electronic format, our initial experiences, like the experiences of other universities, with the new Web-based Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) have been both costly and discouraging. We have spent tens of thousands of dollars to comply with the sys-tem’s requirements; have had to assign a full-time technical expert to maintain our reporting system; and have found the system to be slow, time consuming, frustrating to use, and, perhaps worst of all, unreliable. In some cases, data on a student that has been entered into the system doesn’t show up as intended on an embassy’s computers. In another case, data on one of our students showed up inadvertently on the computers of another university.
As significant as these processing delays have been this spring, they could become much worse over the summer and into the fall as the volume of foreign students seeking visas grows dramatically with the start of a new academic year. All of us in the higher education community are eager to work with the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to improve the screening and tracking procedures so proper scrutiny can be applied without closing our borders to excellent foreign students and scholars or subjecting them to so many hurdles that the best of them go elsewhere.