At a time when it hopes to persuade the world that the United States is once again an inviting place for researchers and graduate students from other countries, the U.S. State Department probably couldn't have picked a worse person to appear to mistreat in the visa process than Goverdhan Mehta.
Not only is Mehta a highly respected organic chemist and one of India's top scientists, but he is also president of the International Council for Science, a coalition of national and international unions of scientists. That makes him highly visible -- and, in a case in which the State Department was accused of denying him a visa before finally granting it this week, a highly visible symbol that raises doubts about whether the United States has really become more hospitable, scholarly and other groups say.
“While we believe that the Department of State has made a lot of progress on visa issues over the past few years, a case like this clearly sets us back in our efforts to convince the best international talent that we continue to be a welcoming country," said Amy Scott, senior federal relations officer at the Association of American Universities.
Added Jane Lubchenco, a professor of biology at Oregon State University who serves on the International Council of Science's board with Mehta: "It is disgraceful that he was treated so poorly. Unfortunately his experience and those of many others are sending a strong message that foreign scientists are not welcome in the U.S."
Mehta, a professor of organic chemistry at the Indian Institute of Science, in Bangalore, did not respond to requests for comment. But other news accounts, including a slew in the Indian press and a front page article in The Washington Post Thursday, report that Mehta, when he applied for a visa to visit the United States next month, was aggressively questioned about his research, accused of "hiding things," in his words, and "told that his work is dangerous because of its potential applications in chemical warfare," according to The Post.
Indian Express said that he had told American consular officials that all his academic research was in the public domain and related to “new molecular entities” and “by no stretch of imagination (could be) related to chemical warfare.”
“At one point [the consular officer] even asked me about my Ph.D. research carried out 40 years ago," he told the Indian publication.
Mehta is scheduled to speak at a conference at the University of Florida next month on heterocyclic chemistry, sponsored by a nonprofit group called Arkat-USA. Mehta has spent significant time in the United States, working for a time as a visiting professor at the University of Florida and appearing at an August 2003 town hall meeting sponsored by the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum, which also featured the White House science adviser and the then-head of the National Science Foundation.
Mehta said that the consular official had told him that his visa request had been denied, and until a Thursday afternoon press briefing, the State Department said little about the case, and sent mixed messages. Last week theU.S. Embassy in New Delhi issued a statement in which it said it "regrets that Professor Mehta was upset by the visa interview process." Thursday morning, a spokeswoman said she was unable to comment on "individual visa decisions."
But at the department's daily news briefing, Adam Ereli, the deputy press secretary, insisted that Mehta had never been denied a visa. "There was information that was needed to process the visa application that we did not receive," Ereli said. "Because Professor Mehta is engaged in the sciences and in the kind of research that he -- a specific kind of research, U.S. law requires us, in order to be able to issue a visa, to get some information about his activities and the purposes of his visit and all that sort of stuff. That took some time. And pending the receipt of that information, we weren't in a position, by law, to issue the visa. Once we got the information, we issued the visa."
Ereli added: "This is a process that applies to everybody. We try to treat everybody fairly. We certainly think we did so in this case, frankly. And we look forward to him having a good trip to the United States. Because the United States wants to be open and welcoming to all those who wish to come here and we've made every effort in this case to be open, to be welcoming and to deal with Professor Mehta in a respectful and cordial way."
Academic groups worry that the damage has been done. State Department and other U.S. officials have pushed aggressively in recent months to combat what they say is the mistaken impression that the United States is no longer hospitable for foreign scientists and graduate students. Critics have accused the government of overreacting to security concerns after the September 11 attacks by making it overly difficult for international scholars to get visas, and federal officials have taken steps to reduce waiting times and otherwise smooth the process.
At a dinner last month with a group of college presidents about a new administration campaign to bolster the study of foreign languages, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to strong applause, said the government had made great progress on improving its visa policies, and that “we are now moving 97 percent of our visas in just one or two days.” She added, however, that “there are legitimate security concerns,” and emphasized the need for institutions to help the government ensure they are met.
Whatever progress the government has made, however, risks being undercut by incidents like the one involving Mehta, at least in perception. As the International Council for Science put it in a news release Thursday, the situation with Mehta "clearly illustrates that, despite some progress, all is far from well with regards to the visa policies and associated practices for scientists wishing to enter the U.S.A."
Said Lubchenco: "I fervently hope that this unfortunate experience will result in a change in procedures such that other scientists are spared similar ordeals and the U.S. can regain its reputation as a champion for the conditions that are required for science to thrive and benefit society."