Foreign scientists who work for the U.S. government or are supported by federal grants can now travel overseas without risking long delays in returning to their jobs. Last month, the U.S. Department of State exempted federal workers and grantees from the elaborate and time-consuming security reviews that have plagued foreign employees trying to obtain visas to reenter the United States.
A string of visa restrictions has tightened U.S. borders since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. The State Department says it took the new step after a number of national laboratories complained that foreign employees were having trouble getting back into the country after an overseas conference or a trip back home.
Under the new procedure, American consulates can fast-track applications for returning visas by those who have received a U.S. visa or otherwise cleared an interagency security review within the past year. The waiver does not apply to university students and researchers who are funded by sources other than the U.S. government.
Lab officials welcome the change. "Over the past year, we've had to tell our international employees that if they travel overseas they need to be prepared for an elongated stay," says Brenda Kirk, a human resources specialist with the Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York.
University and research associations say the revised procedure, while a welcome first step, needs to be expanded to include scholars who are sponsored by nonfederal sources. "The majority of international researchers in the U.S. are not supported through government funding," says Richard Harpel, director of federal relations at the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges in Washington, D.C.