Unwelcome In America


 The recent public furor over the denial of visas to three prominent Indian scientists by the U.S. Consulate in Chennai has cast some welcome light on a dysfunctional visa regime that harasses and humiliates hundreds of thousands of visitors to the United States every year.

Goverdhan Mehta, 62, an internationally recognized organic chemist, president of the Paris-based International Council for Science (ICSU), and former director of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, applied for a U.S. visa to lecture at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and participate at an international conference. Mehta, who has traveled to the United States over a dozen times previously, nonetheless found himself being grilled at the mandatory interview at the consulate over the prospects of his research being used for “chemical warfare.” When he protested that it could not, a consulate officer accused him of not being honest. “To tell a scientist of any standing he is deceptive about his research, there cannot be a bigger affront,” Mehta told the local media. “I certainly felt very humiliated.”

Another scientist Placid Rodriguez, a nuclear metallurgist, decided to abandon his visa request in February after the consulate asked him to complete a questionnaire, which it said would take eight weeks to process, well after the minerals and metals conference he was proposing to attend in San Antonio, Texas, on March 12.
Biologist P.C. Kesavan, of the M S Swaminathan Research Institute in Chennai, who was made to spend hours waiting outside the consulate, was similarly told that his visa application would be delayed. Kesavan was quoted in the Indian media as saying that his encounter with the U.S. consulate was the “most demeaning and humiliating experience.”

The U.S. and the international scientific communities weighed in on the controversy and in the shadows of George Bush’s visit to India, the U.S. Embassy back-pedaled, apologized to the scientists and approved visas for Mehta and Rodriquez. However, Mehta, still smarting over the ordeal, declared that he no longer plans to visit the United States, as did Kesavan.

The international tempest over the experience of these scientists has obscured, however, the time-consuming and humiliating ordeal to which U.S. visa seekers all over India are subjected on a daily basis, notwithstanding the state department’s radiant promise that “travel to the United States is welcomed and encouraged” and that applicants would be treated with “dignity and respect.”
The U.S. Embassy in India requires all visa applicants, even tourists, to appear for a personal interview, obligating most to travel hundreds of miles. Every day, hundreds of Indians stand in lines for hours on end before being subject to abrupt and demeaning questions from U.S. consular officers and often irrational demands and suspicious examinations of their documents and motives. The typical wait time for a visitor visa interview appointment is 79 days in New Delhi, 86 days in Calcutta, 135 days in Chennai and153 days in Mumbai.

The arbitrary and discretionary authority of consular officers is subject neither to due process nor appeals. The U.S. Embassy in India will not even disclose the proportion of visa requests it rejects, acknowledging only that it approved 313,815 visas in 2005.
No one disputes that the United States has the right to regulate the flow of people across its borders. But there is no reason why the visa process needs be irrational, arbitrary, time-consuming or humiliating.

As Wendy White, director of the Board of International Scientific Organizations, observes: “If you tell an American, ‘If you want a visa to go to India, you have to go to Dallas, Chicago, L.A. or New York, and while you are there, you are going to be fingerprinted, photographed and asked about everything you have done in your research for the last 40 years,’ we would find this procedure untenable as Americans.”
But that is precisely the outrageous practice to which hundreds of thousands of Indian visitors to the United States are subjected every year.

The current furor over the Indians scientists should not be quelled by granting them visas so as not to distract from the hoopla over George Bush’s India visit. It is time to overhaul and streamline the visa granting process so that travelers are welcomed and treated with the dignity and respect they deserve and that the state department pledges.

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