By Aaron J. Sender
For Qifa Zhang of Huazhong Agricultural University, and for the entire ag community for that matter, 2002 was the year of the rice plant. In December, the 10 member nations of the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project announced they had completed a high-quality draft sequence for the organism that provides humans with 21 percent of their calories. And in January, as head of the Chinese contingency in charge of chromosome 4, Zhang was preparing to present his country’s contribution to his colleagues from around the world at the Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego. But there was one problem. He couldn’t get a visa.
And Zhang was not the only one. Visa woes were responsible for as many as 100 no-shows at PAG this year, conference founder and chair Stephen Heller estimates. Concrete numbers are hard to come by: While some 20 would-be attendees cited visa problems when requesting refunds, countless others never asked for their cash back because the fees are officially nonrefundable, says Heller, who is also a guest researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. And since many foreigners tend to sign up onsite, “there are a lot of people who I’m sure didn’t get a visa and so just didn’t show up to register,” he says.
Certainly, many an overseas scientist has had to face the crapshoot that is the US visa application process. But according to conference organizers across scientific disciplines, getting permission to enter the country has never been as arduous and arbitrary as it has become over the last six months. “I’ve been doing this for several years for PAG and this year is definitely much worse than in the past,” says Hans Cheng, the conference’s international coordinator and a chicken genome researcher at the USDA. “If the head of the Chinese rice program can’t show up — he was one of the organizers for the rice workshop, the guy’s been here before, he’s well known, and he’s had visas before — then I don’t know what the heck they’re doing,” Heller says.
What the consular officers have been doing, according to Stuart Patt, spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, is running background checks through the US intelligence, security, and law enforcement agencies, a new procedure after 9/11. “The US government has different data collection systems at each of its federal agencies and we’re trying to find better ways to harmonize them,” says Patt. And, no surprise to anybody in the wonderful world of genomics, data integration is a big pain. As a result, the pace of processing visitor visas these days is beginning to make slab-gel sequencing look a lot like high throughput. Delays and disruptions were barely perceptible immediately post 9/11 when new securities reviews were instituted, “but as time went by, the backlog accumulated and now … people might be feeling it,” says Patt.
The repercussions are not just shortchanging meeting organizers and international scientific discourse, but also US standing in the scientific community: “People may decide to have scientific meetings elsewhere,” says PAG’s Heller. It may be all in the name of national security. But immigration lawyer Steven Sklar of the Millburn, NJ-based firm Pusin & Sklar puts it this way: “If there’s a one or two percent increase of security for the country, I’ll be impressed. But there’s definitely a 300 percent increase in hassle.”
What to do? To help visa seekers and US-based conference hosts, GT sought the advice of Sklar, as well as Thomas Jones of DeKalb, Ill., another immigration lawyer specializing in assisting foreign scientists. See below.
How to Increase the Odds that a Foreign Scientist Arrives
The bad news is that there’s no surefire way to obtain a visa. “It’s not the sort of thing where there’s some hidden A, B, and C that you have to get it through every time,” says Jones. To get a visa, potential visitors have about 90 seconds to make their case to an official in the US consulate or embassy in their home country. “And when somebody goes to a consulate they don’t get the benefit of the same sorts of due process that people have when they go to court in the US,” says Jones. “The consulate officials have a lot of discretion basically to make up their own rules as they go.”
The official is most likely young and on his or her first foreign-service assignment, and has a knowledge of the local language limited to a recent several-months intensive training. Also, visa applicants often get confused and answer incorrectly, practically eliminating their chances of getting approved. “No matter what you do, you’re still at the mercy of the consular official,” says Jones. The good news is that there are ways to increase the odds. “The better prepared somebody is the less likely they are to have problems.”
Plan ahead. Apply as far in advance as possible to leave enough time for the wheels of government bureaucracy to creak along. It’s going to take longer than it has in the past, so allow a few extra months if you can.
Establish intent. Bring as much proof as possible that you are not trying to sneak into the US. “They have this antiquated notion that anybody who comes into the US wants to stay here at all costs. And it doesn’t matter whether the person has a PhD or MD, a great position, and would not be able to work here in the US without a working visa,” says Jones. Documentation that the applicant has a respected scientific position, a bank account, a family, and owns a home all help establish ties to your home country. “And this is not immediately intuitive [to the officer],” Jones adds. “If you don’t have any family living in the US, it’s good to mention that too. It’s sort of an affirmative defense: I don’t have anybody in the US that I’m going to be attached to.”
An extremely clear, specific, and literate letter of invitation to the conference may help as well. “And if they can get a letter saying that they know that the person is presenting a paper on the following subject and they think that it would be an important contribution to American scientists to hear this sort of thing, that can be beneficial also,” says Jones.
If you’ve been to the US before, he suggests bringing past visas with you “to show that you have gone to the US, maintained legal status, and then left again as the visa stated you should do.”
Some applicants face a higher burden of proof. Those that have applied for a green card must convince the officer that this time they are just going for a visit. And those that have just a short time remaining on a work visa may have a difficult time ensuring the officer that they don’t intend to stay.
Get a police clearance. If it’s available in your region, get a document that says you’ve lived there for so many years and have no criminal record. If you’ve ever lived in the US, say as a postdoc, it’s a good idea to get a clearance from that city’s police department too.
Complete Application Properly. Mistakes or vague responses can disqualify or delay applications significantly. For example, make sure it’s clear which name is the surname. “I’ve had applicants from Africa with six names. How do you put that on the form properly?” says Jones. “The best thing to do in that sort of case, or with any information that you have, is to put a note on there saying, ‘Please see the attached statement,’ and then include a letter that explains it,” he says. “The worst thing to do is to assume that the consular official will figure anything out for you.”
Remember that all you can do is increase your odds of being approved. The lengths of delays are often unpredictable, says Jones. “You’ll see some people with seemingly not much evidence of a connection to their country and yet they just get the visa automatically. And then you have other people who have very strong connections, but for some reason the person they talk to at the consulate is resistant.”