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U.S. Visa Problems Hitting Science Postdocs and Students

Yesterday’s New York Times tells about increasing problems with visas encountered by foreign postdocs and students in the United States, particularly those in science and technology disciplines.

The problems, according to the article, involve delays, missing paperwork, and less-than-helpful U.S. embassy staff. They appear to be more serious for visitors from China, India, the Middle East, and Russia. A postdoc in genetics at MIT, from Belarus, ran into 3 months of bureaucratic delays and lost documents when she tried to renew her visa with the U.S. embassy in Minsk on a visit home. She ended up having to go to Moscow to get the visa.

An anonymous State Department source told the Times that delays like these (2-3 months) are common and a result of “an unfortunate staffing shortage.” The Belarus postdoc, by the way, has decided not to do further work in the U.S.

The international student director at MIT says the problems often occur when the students or postdocs leave the U.S., for brief visits home or to attend scientific meetings. Trying to get a visa to return is when the problems often begin.

Visa procedures tightened markedly after the 11 September 2001 attacks but in recent years, the U.S. government improved the procedures that cut delays to about two weeks, and students began returning. In the 2007/2008 academic year, according to the Open Doors survey by International Institute of Education, the number of international students on U.S. campuses jumped 7% over 2006/2007. And the 2006/2007 year itself showed a 3% gain over 2005/2006. The Open Doors surveys also show that life science, physical science, computer science, engineering, and mathematics account for more than one-third (34.5%) of foreign students in the United States.

The problems, according to the article, caused AAAS (publisher of this blog and Science magazine) to convene a meeting with the National Academy of Sciences and several dozen other science organizations, to bring those problems to the attention of the State Department.  As the MIT international student director told the Times, “There are other countries that want these folks. They are the best of the best. They have other options.”

Update: The Times story reminds us of a 2004 account in Science Careers of Haitham Idriss,
a Thomas Jefferson University postdoc who went to Canada one weekend
for some R&R. When he tried to reenter the United States, he was
told he needed to register for a program called NSEERS, the provisions
of which he found onerous. He refused and was not readmited. Outside
the U.S., he never found another scientific position.

The last time we spoke to Idriss, we learned that he had given up on research and started a new scientific journal, Annals of Alquds Medicine,
which now seems to be defunct. It was a pretty standard journal in all
but two respects: it didn’t allow submissions from an Israeli address,
and it didn’t allow references to evolution–which, Idriss maintained,
contradicted Islamic orthodoxy. Make of this what you will. 

6 comments on “U.S. Visa Problems Hitting Science Postdocs and Students”


    I went to India with my wife and our baby. I had to go to the US Consulate in Kolkata, India for Visa stamping and I hold a J1 visa and my wife who holds a J2 visa also went for the stamping. I got my visa back after 2 months whereas my wife is still stuck there. Neither the consulate nor the department of state can provide any reason for this unreasonable delay but only referes to administrative processing. we are postdoctoral research scholars at Northwestern University and have been carrying out our research for over 4 years here. I think it is completely irrational and unreasonable to hold back somebody , cutting him or her from science due to some bureaucratic SNAFU.

  2. We a group of more than 100 scientists, professors, engineers shared similar experience due to the long administrative processing. Please check out facebook group.

  3. Aqil Sajjad

    This is a very big problem for international students, post docs and profs in the US, and if the procedures aren’t improved, sciences in the US will seriously suffer. They need to substantially reduce the processing time, and if that can’t be done, implement one of the following two solutions asap:
    1. Start issuing visas within the US, so that one can continue ones research while waiting for the visa process to be completed.
    2. If they don’t want to open visa offices within the US, then at least let foreign researchers apply for a new visa in Canada and return to the US and continue with their research while the US embassy in Canada is processing their application. Presently, one can go to canada and return within 30 days, but if one applies for a new visa, then one can’t enter the US unless the visa process is completed. This is absolutely ridiculous. There won’t be any harm in letting people return to their jobs/research/studies while the US embassy in canada is working on their application, and it will make the lives of foreign researchers much easier

  4. Very interesting.
    For US visa interview appointments in Canada, please refer to

  5. PS

    I have been stuck on the admin processing since Jan 21 this year – more than 125 days now. I went for visa stamping in New Delhi, India. What is worse is that nobody is willing to answer how long it will take. I have been living in US for more than 4 years.

  6. That issue is arising from almost every country nowadays, the embassy or immigration aint allowing visa to be given to some people.

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