|Committee on Science
SHERWOOD BOEHLERT, CHAIRMAN
Ralph M. Hall, Texas, Ranking Democrat
CONCERNED ABOUT BACKLOG OF STUDENT VISAS AND PROBLEMS
WITH TRACKING OF FOREIGN STUDENTS
Science Committee Asks GAO for
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
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
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."
CHAIRMAN SHERWOOD BOEHLERT (R-NY)
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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