Log onto the Web site of the U.S. Consulate in Chennai and you will see a snapshot of what visa processing is doing to the competitiveness of American companies and research institutions. Click on the link to "Case Status Report," and there is a list of hundreds of visa applications from Indians who await processing. The oldest dates back to 2005, and dozens of others have been pending for a year or more while Washington plods through security background checks.
In recent months I have been in contact with many individuals caught in this Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Most are scientists and engineers who have earned advanced degrees from U.S. universities and are (or were) working for American companies in Silicon Valley, Wall Street and other centers of the U.S. economy.
One had been a researcher at Intel on the latest generation of chip designs; he'd won a national prize for his Ph.D. dissertation for outstanding research in electronic and photonic materials. Another had lived in the U.S. for more than a decade and was doing post-doctoral research at Emory University on vaccine immunology. Still another was a quantitative analyst for a U.S. hedge fund.
Yet when they returned to India--to attend a brother's wedding or visit a dying parent or simply take a vacation--they were informed that they could not come back until the U.S. government had done a security screening. Many arrived in India with only a suitcase. By the time I heard of their stories they had been forced to abandon apartments, cars and families in the U.S. while they waited to hear from the State Department.
Of all the initiatives undertaken in the name of homeland security after 9/11, the visa screening requirements for foreign scientists and engineers have probably done the most lasting damage to America's economy -- particularly in the cutting-edge technology fields that are vital to our economic leadership and national security.
The U.S. scientific enterprise depends enormously on talented foreigners. Foreign students and researchers, especially from India and China, comprise more than half of the scientific researchers in the U.S. They earn 40% of the Ph.D.s in science and engineering, and 65% of the computer science doctorates. If we drive them away, the companies that depend on such expertise will leave with them, taking thousands of other jobs that would have been filled by Americans.
Last week, in an encouraging sign that Washington has started to recognize the damage, the Obama administration pledged to throw enough resources at the problem to reduce the months-long screening to no more than two weeks in most cases. With the improvements that have been made in terrorist watch lists and other security screening tools, a decision on whether a visa applicant--especially one already living and working here--poses a threat should not take months.
Equally encouraging, the administration's top officials appear to have recognized the importance of the problem. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used her commencement speech at New York University last month to pledge that she would "streamline the visa process, particularly for science and technology students, so that even more qualified students will come here." Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has promised a renewed effort to secure the country's borders "without cutting off legitimate trade and tourism."
A lot of ground has been lost in the past eight years, however. While foreign student applications were up sharply in 2007 and 2008 and have finally surpassed their pre-9/11 levels, the U.S. largely missed out on the biggest boom ever in students studying abroad, especially at the graduate level. Other countries have competed aggressively for those students while the U.S. made it so difficult to come here that many opted not to. Foreign student enrollment is about 25% below what it would have been had pre-9/11 trends continued.
While the pledge to speed up security reviews is encouraging, the administration needs to take a more comprehensive look at the impact of post-9/11 visa and travel restrictions. Do we really need, for instance, to do in-person interviews of everyone who seeks a visa, even if they have already been interviewed for visas in the past, and we already have their fingerprints on U.S. government databases? That only wastes scarce consular resources on low-risk travelers. Is it necessary to pull all male travelers from Muslim countries into the long humiliation of secondary screening at the airport, even those who are frequent visitors well-known to U.S. officials? It is time to reassert some common sense.
When the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003, it set out to build a "smart border," one that would keep out terrorists, criminals and others who would harm the U.S. without driving away the tourists, students, businessmen and skilled employees the country needs. It was the right goal, but too often the government forgot the "smart" part and simply layered on more onerous security measures. The U.S. economy has suffered unnecessary damage. The administration's move last week on visas needs to be the first of many steps to get back on a smarter path.
Mr. Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of "The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration, and Security Since 9/11" (HarperCollins, 2008).
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.