The United States changed its visa rules last Friday to make it easier for foreign students and scientists working on sensitive technologies to re-enter the country after overseas trips. The new policy, announced last week by the State Department, extends the validity of security clearances from one year to four years for international students and from one to two years for foreign scientists.
Until now, foreign scholars working in a host of disciplines ranging from aeronautical engineering to immunology had to undergo an extensive security review--known as a Visas Mantis check--every time they traveled out of the United States. Only those who had received a clearance within the preceding 12 months were exempt. In the tightened security environment after the 2001 terrorists attacks, that procedure resulted in major delays for thousands of international graduate students and researchers returning to the U.S. after visiting their home countries or attending a conferences overseas. After complaints from scientific and educational associations, officials at the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department promised to extend the validity of Mantis clearances (Science, 27 August 2004, p. 1222).
The new policy "eliminates a lot of uncertainty for foreign students in the United States," says Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities. More broadly, he says, "it sends out a message that international students and scholars are welcome here."
Scientists who frequently attend U.S. conferences and make short visits will also benefit from the new policy, which extends the validity of a Mantis clearance for such visits to a year. C. Stewart Verdery, the outgoing assistant secretary for Border/Transportation Security Policy at the Department of Homeland Security and one of the officials who worked on the extension, says the purpose of this change is to ensure that "security constraints don't make the United States less attractive as a venue for scientific conferences."