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Science Committee Asks GAO for Further Study

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 26, 2003 - A backlog of visas for foreign students and scholars and problems with a new tracking system for foreign students are hampering work at U.S. universities and potentially harming U.S. security, two academic leaders told the House Science Committee at a hearing today.

A witness from the State Department acknowledged the problems, but said they were in the process of being worked out.

The Committee heard from Janis Jacobs, deputy assistant secretary for visa services at the State Department; Dr. Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University; and Dr. David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, a group that represents many U.S. universities. The hearing focused on issues related to foreign students and scholars in science, mathematics and engineering, particularly graduate students.

Committee Members had a variety of reactions to the cited problems. Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Ranking Democrat Ralph Hall (D-TX) released a letter they sent today to the General Accounting Office (GAO), requesting better data on the extent and nature of the visa backlog.

Some Members, including Congressman Hall and Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Nick Smith (R-MI) and Phil Gingrey (R-GA) raised questions about why the U.S. was so dependent on foreign students.

Boehlert said, "The visa problem is sometimes discussed as simply a problem for our universities that needs to be balanced against the need for security. But that's a distorted view. The reason for concern is that unnecessarily impeding the flow of students and scholars in and of itself can erode our national security." (Boehlert's full statement is attached.)

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) added, "Given the reality of limited resources, the U.S. government must closely focus its efforts and establish a viable means to identify the pool of visa applicants that requires special screening, so that it can process non-problem applications quickly and efficiently and dedicate scarce resources to addressing real security needs. I believe that immigration can be managed effectively and in a manner that is consistent with American traditions, civil rights and civil liberties. As a nation of immigrants committed to the rule of law, we must set our limits on who can enter our country and support those limits with the effective enforcement of U.S. immigration law."

Dr. Tilghman said, "During the recent winter break there were four engineering graduate students from Princeton who traveled abroad and had difficulty re-entering the country. Among the four, one (a Chinese student in physics) has returned, while three (a Malaysian electrical engineering student, a Chinese mechanical engineering student, and a Chinese civil engineering student) are still awaiting their visas to return."

The hearing also focused on the new tracking system for foreign students, known as the Student Exchange and Visitor Information Service (SEVIS). SEVIS has been plagued with technological problems including lost information, delays in processing simple forms, and personal information being sent to unintended places. "The simplest way to characterize these problems is to say that the Immigration and Naturalization Service implemented this system before it was fully tested," Dr. Ward said.

Tilghman stated that a new visa review body the Administration is planning to create, known as IPASS, might help the visa backlog. But she added, "IPASS could add yet another layer of bureaucracy to an already burdensome process and the visa backlog could grow even longer." Tilghman stressed the importance of the administration quickly providing details on the IPASS system. "The absence of information about IPASS could dissuade excellent international students from applying to U.S. institutions for fear that this new system will impose additional burdens and delays."

"We support these efforts" to improve security, Ward said, "But we fear that the inconsistent and inefficient implementation of these steps is making it more difficult to encourage international students and scholars to come to our country and to complete their studies, scholarship and research." Ward also warned that the visa backlog could have a ripple effect throughout the economy as the nearly 583,000 international students spend an estimated $12 billion per year in the U.S.

"When we shortchange science in this country, we shortchange research and development. Without research and development, we hurt the growth of jobs," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). "As someone who represents the high tech area of Silicon Valley, our economy depends on the discoveries that science produces. If we don't make the visa process efficient, science will suffer as well as our economy."

Tilman added, "We know that other countries are working hard to develop higher education systems that mirror the U.S. system, and the more difficult we make it for highly desirable students and scholars to obtain American visas, the greater the likelihood that the 'best and brightest' students and scholars throughout the world will elect to study and work in other countries."

Opening Statement From Hearing on Dealing with Foreign Students and Scholars in an Age of Terrorism: Visa Backlogs and Tracking Systems

It's a pleasure to welcome everyone here this morning to the second in what we expect will be a long series of hearings on how the war on terrorism is affecting our nation's research enterprise.

Last October, we held a hearing on so-called sensitive but unclassified information, which looked at ways to balance the need for secrecy to protect our security with the need for openness to enable scientific inquiry. We continue to follow that issue closely.

Today we turn our attention to a more tangible set of issues - the backlog of visas for foreign students and scholars, and the problems that plague the SEVIS tracking system. The problems with visas and SEVIS are at a critical point; one Administration official has described the visa situation to me as a "crisis."

The origins of the crisis are easy to understand. The attacks of September 11th made clear the potential threat posed by the abuse of student visas and our shocking inability to counter that threat. As a member of the Intelligence Committee, I take that threat seriously. The Administration and the Congress deserve credit for putting in place new and stricter protocols and for erring on the side of caution.

But that said, the current situation is untenable.

The visa problem is sometimes discussed as simply a problem for our universities that needs to be balanced against the need for security. But that's a distorted view. The reason for concern is that unnecessarily impeding the flow of students and scholars in and of itself can erode our national security.

Foreign students fill our graduate programs; foreign scholars fill our faculty and laboratory positions. These people are a vital source of new ideas and perspectives, and the flow of students and scholars creates goodwill on which the U.S. depends and which would be difficult to generate as effectively in any other way.

You know, talking about the threat to homeland security, some people say we need a Manhattan Project to come up with new tools in the war against terrorism. Let me point out that the Manhattan Project was not named for the birthplace of its leading participants. The U.S. has always been dependent on help from students and scholars who were not born and bred here. And that remains true today even though our scientific enterprise is far more robust than it was in the 1940s.

So when we have a visa system that impedes and even discourages the flow of foreign students that's bad for our security. When we have a visa system that casts so wide a net that we can't focus on real threats, that's bad for our security. When we have a tracking system that creates undue burdens on the flow of students, that's a threat to our security. When we have a tracking system that can't be relied upon to provide accurate information system, that's a threat to our security.

Now I know that the Administration is working hard to solve these problems especially through the still new Department of Homeland Security. Our effort today is to get a clearer sense of the extent of the problems with visas and SEVIS and how we can all work together to solve them. I know other Congressional committees will be looking into these issues as well.

One problem we have now is that there isn't even good data on the extent of the visa problem. Congressman Hall and I will be sending a letter to the General Accounting Office (GAO) today, asking them to gather reliable data.

So, as I said at the outset, this is just the first of many hearings on this important subject. We all need to work together to ensure that foreign students and scholars do not threaten our security - either by their presence or their absence. Thank you.



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Committee on Science
Ralph M. Hall, Texas, Ranking Democrat
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