June 30, 2003 - ASM Sends Letter to Powell Regarding Visa Issues

The Honorable Colin Powell
United States Department of State
2201 C Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Secretary Powell:

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is writing to ask that the Department of State develop procedures and allocate resources necessary to assure prompt and appropriate action on visa requests for students and researchers seeking to study the microbiological sciences within the United States. We believe this matter requires the urgent attention of the Department of State.

The ASM recognizes the threat terrorism poses to our nation. For that reason, ASM has worked with the Congress and the Administration to develop statutes and regulations designed to protect the United States against terrorism involving the possible misuse of the microbiological sciences.

The ASM is also very mindful of another clear and present danger – the scourge of infectious diseases. Infectious diseases daily end the lives of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands around the world. Infectious diseases continue to be the third leading cause of death in the United States. In responding to the threat of terrorism, therefore, we must minimize any adverse impact on vital research and public health activities related to infectious diseases. That work includes educating and training the next generation of scientists at home and around the world.

The open exchange of scientific information and the global training of microbiologists must remain a fundamental principle of United States policy regarding the microbiological sciences. Educational exchanges and training of students, researchers and clinicians in microbiology and other scientific disciplines from countries around the world are critical for the advancement of biomedical science and public health. If we limit our ability to exchange scientific information and train scientists, we will severely limit our ability to fight infectious diseases, and infectious diseases do not respect any border.

Recently, there are reports that students, post doctoral trainees and senior scientists are encountering difficulty entering the United States within a time frame permitting attendance at scheduled educational activities, scientific meetings and international advisory bodies. Further, we understand that some individuals who returned to their homelands during school breaks were unable to re-enter the United States with sufficient dispatch to resume their classes. These reports are distressing.

We urge the Department of State to eliminate the adverse impact of visa policies on the continued education and training of foreign students in the United States. ASM does not urge laxness in processing visas. ASM agrees that it is necessary to implement appropriate screening of persons desiring entry into the United States. ASM does urge that such screening processes be undertaken with a minimum of disruption of educational and research endeavors. We urge observance of the following principles in designing and implementing screening procedures.

  • Screening procedures must be developed, planned, and implemented in a manner and on a schedule that assures interviews or other processes do not interfere with legitimate scientific training. 
  • The United States must devote the necessary resources so prudent procedures do not fail as a result of a lack of adequately trained personnel to implement the procedures in a timely manner. 
  • Microbiology and other sciences must not be singled out as an area of concern or in a manner that admission of students for science education and training is impeded. 
  • In light of inevitable limitations upon resources, procedures must be developed that expedite, on the basis of objective criteria, the processing of visas least likely to pose a threat so the overall system permits the timely admission of all qualified individuals legitimately interested in advancing their education or advisory role to the U.S. governmental agencies. 
  • The process for re-entry of trainees who have been granted visas for training in the United States should be simplified, eliminating the requirement for re-entry interviews for students who have only been out of the United States for a brief period.

ASM understands that the development and implementation of visa policies in current world circumstances requires a difficult balancing of policies, procedures, and resources. However, we have confidence that the efforts of the Department of State will protect and advance the interests of our citizens at home and abroad. It is in this spirit of concern for the public welfare that we urge you to implement a visa system designed and funded to permit the timely admission of students in the microbiological sciences. ASM pledges to assist you in every possible way to achieve this important goal.