U.S. Visa Delays Leave Skilled Foreign Workers in Specialized Fields Stranded

Scientists Sanjeev Mathur, left, wife Deepika Mohan and Surojit Sarkar faced long waits for their work visas when they came home to India to see family.
Scientists Sanjeev Mathur, left, wife Deepika Mohan and Surojit Sarkar faced long waits for their work visas when they came home to India to see family. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 12, 2009

NEW DELHI -- When Surojit Sarkar got a call that his father had suffered a paralyzing stroke, he packed a small suitcase, kissed his wife and 10-month-old daughter, and rushed to the airport for the first leg of his flight from Atlanta to India. Sarkar, an only child, wanted to be by his father's bedside, prepared for the worst.

Sarkar thought he would be in New Delhi for just a few weeks. Now, more than three months later, his father is in physical therapy, but Sarkar is still here, trapped in administrative limbo over his U.S. work visa status. He says consular agents flagged his visa renewal application for security reasons.

Sarkar is one of thousands of highly skilled scientists, professors and technology workers from Beijing to Belarus who have been stranded in their home countries in recent months, upsetting their lives, their jobs and their children's schooling. Many wonder whether the United States still wants its foreign scientists.

"When I said I have a PhD and worked with vaccines, the visa officer abruptly stopped what he was doing. I must have uttered a keyword for some security threat," said Sarkar, 36, a U.S.-educated scientist who works on HIV vaccines at Emory University's School of Medicine. He is a legal immigrant and has been a U.S. taxpayer for more than a decade. "I totally understand the need for careful screening of visa applicants for protecting the nation. But I just want to go back to my family and my research. I've already missed my only daughter's first steps and her first birthday."

Delays have increased because of rising demand for U.S. visas all over the world, said David Donahue, deputy assistant secretary of state for visa services.

The middle class is growing rapidly in India, China, Mexico and Brazil; as more people are able to travel and study abroad, the average wait for a U.S. visa has risen to about three months, Donahue said. His office does not publicize the total number of visa applicants being screened for security reasons. But several thousand have joined a Facebook support group about the issue.

"We have now hired additional staff, and wait times are starting to fall. We hope to have wait times for cases requiring processing down to about four to six weeks by the end of summer. But we completely understand the concerns," Donahue said in a telephone interview. "We know it's really difficult when you've been in a job, have a family and rent."

For scientists such as Sarkar, the problems began when the United States stepped up security checks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, especially for those working in scientific and technological fields that the government deems "highly sensitive." Wait times initially spiked but dipped after about a year.

Aman Kapoor of ImmigrationVoice.com, a nonprofit organization, said the increase in wait times is making it tougher for some of the world's smartest and best-educated scientists to work and live in the United States.

"These are top scientists and engineers," he said. "Ultimately, all of these delays only hurt the U.S economy."

Over fresh lime sodas and thick folders containing their legal documents, more than 25 stranded scientists and technology workers recently gathered to share stories of being put on unpaid leave or of missing medical treatments and business meetings.

Deepika Mohan's 11-year-old son missed so much school waiting for her visa situation to clear that he was set back a year. Mohan works outside Boston, inventing medical diagnostic instruments.

"My son has been sitting idle for four months," she said, her voice cracking. She and her family recently obtained their visas. But her son, who had not enrolled in an Indian school because the family did not know how long it would be stranded, lost the year of school.

Although their employers are anxious to get them back to work, Sarkar and others said, they will not wait forever, especially in a strained economic climate. "I have lived most of my adult life in the U.S., and now that feels like home to me," Sarkar said. "I feel stranded here without even a driver's license and a bank account. If I lose my job, that's another house in foreclosure."

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