Monday, July 04, 2011

Have you been TALed and Mantised recently?

For the past month or so, I was caught in what can be called an (unnecessarily) anxious wait for my US visa. I was offered a post-doc at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) in the United States about nine months ago. From then to this day, I have gone through many agonizing waiting periods. Of course, the biggest of them all was finishing my PhD.

I have to accept, I need to put a lot of effort into increasing my ability to handle unforeseen, unexpected and uncertain situations. This was not my first time under the (now) famous 221(g) administrative processing delay. I spent some furious six weeks in 2009, when I missed a conference due to the same process. What makes it even more annoying is that it is applied to only certain individuals under certain circumstances, making it almost impossible to avoid a suspicious or funny look from a regular US tourist. I decided to take this opportunity to blog about it so that people become aware that in certain cases, a United States visa can be delayed indefinitely.

Post 9/11, US has made the visa process stricter. Some US visas are delayed due to the Security Advisory Opinion (SAO). The Department of State has categorized applicants according to their circumstances. The Visas Mantis SAO is applicable when there is a probability of use of a sensitive, illegal or dual use technology. The Department of State has also created a Technology Alert List (TAL). Exchange scholar, H1B and sometimes student (F1) visas are also subject to a TAL check. The TAL check typically involves providing the Department of State with a detailed Statement of Purpose (SOP), resume, applicant's travel history and purpose of US visit. Applicants from countries that possess nuclear technology (India, China, Israel, Pakistan and Russia) working in a wide range of scientific fields such as Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Aeronautical Engineering, Biotechnology, Biomedical Engineering or employed by research institutes that use sensitive technologies can be adversely affected. For security reasons, this list is not published anywhere on the internet. However, almost all the branches of Physics, Chemistry and Biology are included in this list.

I have accepted now (after wasting a lot of time and peace of mind) that I am going to be a regular at these security checks for a few years to come. There is only so much euphemism at your disposal when you are trying to tell a visa officer that you are going to work on making fuels. There is nothing on my resume that would not prompt a Mantis or a TAL check. (un)Fortunately, I am not alone. There is a page dedicated to people stuck in the US administrative processing which I found very helpful during this wait. There is no fixed deadline as to when your visa will be approved. So many people find it very difficult to accept that they have to wait indefinitely. For them, a clever website has already been designed. Check reporter lets you enter your own visa information (date of interview, date of approval, consulate, visa type) and update it whenever your application is processed. This has helped create a comprehensive database of processing times from November 2008 onwards. Processing times have been shortened considerably over the past three years.

I hope this information helps people who are in the process of applying for a US visa. If you ever go through it, as the Visa Officer who interviewed me would say, "You are only paying the price of being very smart".

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