After years of complaints from universities, the State Department has issued final regulations that permit some visiting scholars from abroad to obtain visas to work in the United States for as many as five years, up from the current limit of three years.
At the same time, the rules generally require that participants in the Exchange Visitor Program for Professors and Scholars not have been in the United States immediately prior to receiving such a visa -- and this requirement has some exchange officials worried.
The visa program covered by the rules is generally used by faculty members in other countries who are collaborating on projects with colleagues at American universities, or who want to accept short-term positions in the United States. The visas allow people to enter and leave the United States multiple times, avoiding the difficulties of applying for a new visa for each visit. These visas can't be used for those taking tenure-track jobs.
"The change to five years is something we've needed for a long time," said Victor C. Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators. "As research gets more complex, especially in science, projects take longer and longer to complete and three years isn't long enough."
So many major science projects today are international collaborations that changing this time limit has been a major priority, Johnson said.
The State Department rejected a proposal by some colleges that would have extended the duration of visas even longer. Colleges wanted to count only time actually spent in the United States, so that scholars going back and forth between the United States and another nation could have a longer span of time in the U.S. under the visa, by not counting time spent in their home countries. The State Department rejected that idea as too complicated, so the timing of these visas will be a single, five year period, regardless of how much of that time is spent in the U.S.
Johnson said that he was more concerned about the bar on being in the United States on some visas just prior to getting a visa in the Exchange Visitor Program. The State Department explained the rule as necessary to keep the program as one that involves true exchange -- people going back and forth.
But Johnson said that these limits were not included in previous drafts of the regulations, and so the impact was unclear. He said he worried that there could be numerous circumstances in which this new limit would unfairly keep people out of the program.
Discussions between exchange officials and the State Department over the change in visa duration for the program started prior to 9/11, Johnson said. "We thought we had this issue handled in a quite satisfactory way to everyone, and then everything got frozen. It is good that this got unfrozen."