State: Tech upgrades will speed visas

Improvements Needed to Reduce Time Taken to Adjudicate Visas for Science Students and Scholars

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State Department officials have spent about $1 million to upgrade their technology for security checks of visa applications by foreign science students and scholars, but General Accounting Office officials say other obstacles remain.

Federal officials should speed up the process of issuing visas for foreign science students and scholars, according to a recent General Accounting Office report. The U.S. government has important natural security interests in screening these individuals when they apply for a visa. However, scientists and other federal officials have voiced concern about the length of time it takes for international students and scholars to get a visa. Because of the delays, the United States is losing top foreign students to other countries, officials say.

During the review, GAO officials found that the time it takes to process a visa depends largely on if an applicant must undergo a security check known as a Visas Mantis, which is designed to protect against sensitive technology transfers.

Based on a random sample of Visas Mantis cases for science students and scholars sent from foreign applicants between April and June 2003, GAO found it took an average of 67 days for the security check to be processed and for the State Department to notify the applicant.

Although State and FBI officials acknowledged there have been lengthy waits, they report that measures are under way to improve the process, according to the GAO report. State officials also told GAO officials that they have invested about $1 million to upgrade the technology for sending Visas Mantis requests. The new system will help to reduce the time it takes to process cases, according to State officials.

State and the FBI also told GAO that they are collaborating to identify and resolve outstanding Visas Mantis cases.

However, the GAO report says challenges remain. For example, "the FBI's systems will not immediately be interoperable with State's new system," according to the GAO report. "As a result, data exchange between State and FBI may continue to cause lengthy waits," the report states. FBI officials told GAO that they are working with State to resolve this problem but haven't determined how the information will be transmitted in the meantime. GAO officials could not assess State's new system because it wasn't functioning at the time of its review. The system is expected to be ready for operation later this year.

GAO officials' visits to posts in China, India and Russia in September 2003 showed that many Visas Mantis cases had been pending 60 days or more. Plus, GAO officials found that the way in which Visas Mantis information was disseminated at State headquarters made it difficult to resolve some of these cases quickly.

Moreover, consular staff at posts GAO officials visited said they were unsure whether or not they were contributing to lengthy waits because they did not have clear guidance on when to apply Visas Mantis checks. Plus they did not receive feedback on whether they were providing enough information in their Visas Mantis requests. Another factor prolonging the visa processing time is the wait for an interview, which could take two to three weeks depending on the time of the year.

GAO officials are making a recommendation to the State Secretary, in coordination with the FBI Director and the Secretary of the Homeland Security Department, to develop and implement a plan to improve the security process.

State officials indicated other measures to improve the Visas Mantis process and said they have started to implement portions of GAO's recommendations. For instance, State officials have started to provide feedback to posts regarding the information contained in Visas Mantis cables. Plus, officials are providing expanded briefings on the Visas Mantis processs to new consular officers.

Officials from DHS and the FBI did not comment on GAO recommendations, according to the report.

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