WASHINGTON – America’s status as the world leader in fields such as bioscience, engineering, and computer science is at risk because of restrictive post-Sept. 11 immigration screening policies, a university official said Wednesday.
In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, University of Maryland President C. Dan Mote said those policies are sending the world’s best and brightest to countries such as Canada and Australia, leaving U.S. businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
“We all agree that protecting our citizens is a priority second to none,” Mote said in a prepared statement. “We also have a . . . responsibility to deliver the highest-quality education and research programs to keep the nation strong and competitive.
“We do not believe these are mutually exclusive mandates,” he said.
Over the last two years, the College Park campus has seen a 36 percent drop in applications from international graduate students and a 21 percent decline in enrollment by them, Mote said. Many of those students have provided hard-science skills that helped boost the university’s ranking among public research universities from 30th in 1998 to 17th in 2004.
Mote said that foreign students and researchers in fields deemed sensitive by the State Department, such as biotechnology, are now subject to strict screening requirements overseen by the government. But he said the so-called Visas Mantis policy is taking too long to process candidates.
“Though a recent report claims that 95 percent of the Visas Mantis clearances are completed within a month, we find from our experience at Maryland that the clearances are often taking much longer,” Mote said in prepared text.
Visas Mantis applications are supposed to be processed within 30 days.
A spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs said that 98 percent of all Visas Mantis applications are currently being processed within 30 days, and that the average wait time was well below one month.
Other agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, must vet applicants before the State Department can grant approval.
“A year ago, the average wait time was 73 days,” said Kelly Shannon, the State spokeswoman. “Today it’s 20 days.”
Shannon attributed some of the improvement to technology investments that allow for better communication between systems and administrators, as well as increased staffing.
“We’re turning the corner,” Shannon said.
But at the Senate hearing earlier in the day, Mote’s comments worried committee members, including Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md.
“The campus plays an indispensable role in the economic infrastructure of our state,” Sarbanes said in response to Mote’s comments.
The senator predicted the state’s industries would not be directly affected by the reduction, however.
“This is an indirect problem for Maryland businesses, but I think the implications are quite far reaching,” Sarbanes said.
Charlie Scott, director of government relations at the Tech Council of Maryland, echoed Sarbanes’ comments.
While members have not specifically discussed the decline in foreign students studying technology issues, he said businesses are concerned about the overall decline in the general population of students focused on areas such as information technology and biosciences.
Nationally, Maryland ranked fifth in 2002 for university research and development expenditures, and fourth in higher-education degrees in biological sciences, according to a June report by the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice.
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