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US extends security clearance for scholars

Visa-related checks to remain valid for up to four years.


Hail fellow: visa problems have dogged scientists visiting the United States. Credit: M. J. SANCHEZ/AP

The US government has announced that visa-related security checks will remain valid for up to four years. The planned change will ease travel in and out of the country, and greatly reduce the chance that students or scientists are left stranded abroad.

Academic groups are delighted with the move, which they say will simplify visitors' trips home. “It's fantastic,” says Wendy White, head of the international office at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. “I think it will make a big difference for visiting students and scholars.”

The Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security, which are jointly responsible for immigration policy, revealed their decision on 11 February. “This change sends a clear message that the United States encourages those with great scientific minds to explore studying and working in our country,” said a statement from Asa Hutchinson, under-secretary for borders and transportation at the homeland security department.

Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, background checks have been required for many scientists seeking visas to work or study in the United States. In the past, the checks have led to lengthy delays that caused some researchers to miss meetings or the start of academic years. Even students who had studied in the United States for years found themselves unable to return until their security checks had been completed (see Nature 427, 190–195; 2004).

Under the new scheme, security clearances for students will be valid for four years, and those for scientists working in the United States on scholar or work visas will last for two years. In addition, researchers visiting the country for conferences and other events will hold valid security clearance for 12 months. The net effect is that researchers will be able to move in and out of the United States more easily after an initial check has been done, according to Angela Aggeler, a spokeswoman for the state department.

Aggeler adds that the average time taken to make a security check has already been slashed from 75 to 14 days over the past year. “We will continue to try and lower the waiting time,” she says.

“I think that this kind of change sends a good signal to the international community,” says Heath Brown, director of research and policy analysis at the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington. A survey by the council last year showed that the number of foreign students admitted to US schools was down in 2004 (see Nature 431, 231; 2004). Brown says that he hopes the changes will bring foreign students and scholars back to US universities, but he points out that many still see the country as an unwelcoming place in the wake of 9/11. White agrees: “We have to get the word out that things really are better.”

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