Federal officials declare visa delays nearly resolved

The problems that researchers and businessmen have experienced in getting visas to enter the United States since the 2001 terrorist attacks are all but resolved, Bush administration officials said Tuesday.

"I think we have now solved many of the structural problems these [security] programs created," Stewart Verdery, a Homeland Security Department assistant secretary for border and transportation, said at a meeting of the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST). "I think we're now battling the perception of these issues more than the substance." Verdery said the backlog for processing scientists' visas is declining.

Janice Jacobs, a State Department assistant secretary for visa services, said visa policy is significantly better, and the government remains open to hearing about continuing problems.

There were "many, many" people delayed in 2002, Jacobs said, but steps have been taken to improve the situation. The number of foreign visa applicants and issuances dropped after the terrorist attacks, and researchers have been heading instead to competing countries.

"I think there's no question that [foreigners] feel the U.S. is a less-welcoming place," she said. "That's something we need to work on."

Jacobs said about 2 percent of applicants, including cases involving technology transfer, are subject to vetting in Washington. A separate team has been created to handle such cases.

A year ago, the average processing time for these cases was about two months. As of September, 98 percent of those cases were being processed within 30 days or less, she said. And the State Department also has obtained "commitments" that delays related to terrorist checks and other advisory opinions will be resolved, she added.

As of this month, all of the 211 overseas posts issuing visas were expected to be collecting fingerprints for biometric processing, and all are able to use a consolidated database to exchange the information they collect electronically.

Jacobs cautioned that visa issues remain highly volatile in Congress and that her bureau is currently the subject of five Government Accountability Office investigations.

Verdery said one contributing factor has been a decision, due in a few weeks, that will make Homeland Security the arbiter in cases where agencies cannot agree on a visa application.

Charles Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said there still is "a surliness" in the business and academic communities about visa delays.

The use of biometrics at the border is speeding entries, officials said. Verdery noted that the U.S. system for tracking foreigners' entry and exit can check travelers against terrorist and criminal databases within six seconds. Within a year or so, a "personal folder" for each traveler will allow analysis of metrics such as the number of visa issuances, he added.

"I think there are still a lot of misperceptions out there about delays," Jacobs said. "If you haven't tested the system recently, you're going to find very significant improvement."