The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Cry to clean up US visa 'terror' list

Washington, Oct. 21: India's Prime Minister and the US President may be discussing 'strategic partnership' between their countries, but it is making no dent in some policies of the FBI and the state department which are tantamount to treating certain high profile visitors and students from India as terrorists.

Those policies brought forth an explosive rebuke from New Jersey's Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone, who wrote to secretary of state Colin Powell yesterday 'to remove India from this list of terrorist states'.

At the heart of Pallone's angry outburst is the Technology Alert List or Tal which was created four years ago -- well before September 11 -- as a guideline for US consular officials throughout the world in reviewing visa applications.

Tal's objective is to prevent the export from America of 'goods, technology or sensitive information' through activities such as 'graduate-level studies, teaching, conducting research, participating in exchange programs, receiving training or employment...'.

With the introduction of this list, students applying to US universities to study chemical and bio-medical engineering, nuclear technology, information security, robotics and a whole lot of other subjects were required to be cleared by the FBI and subject to other checks before their visas could be issued. The process is known as Visas Mantis.

Experts and scholars dealing with a wide range of sensitive subjects in their home countries were also subject to such scrutiny prior to being allowed to visit the US.

American universities report that until the start of the academic year in 2002, Tal was little more than another piece of bureaucratic paper with instructions to pen-pushers in embassies.

But since then, students, academics and experts going to American universities have experienced long delays in getting their visa applications cleared.

According to sources in various universities, students and scholars most affected by Tal are from China, Russia, India, Spain, Israel, Pakistan, Cuba, Libya, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan, Syria.

The last seven countries have either been subject to American sanctions or have figured in the state department's terrorist list.

Tal itself is secret, but it was inadvertently put up on the state department's website from where the Los Angeles Times picked it up.

The list has since been removed from the website. According to the paper, recently, new areas, including seemingly innocuous subjects such as urban planning, architecture, housing, microbiology, physics and civil engineering have been added to the list.

The result may be longer delays in processing student visas, but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has sent teams to US embassies most affected to study the problem.

The Congress has held hearings on the subject and US legislators making overseas trips have looked into complaints at embassies under pressure from their constituents.

University education is America's biggest export and universities here have been upset by a fall in their number of foreign students caused by uncertainties in obtaining visas.

A recent GAO report said its visits to US diplomatic missions in 'China, India, and Russia in September 2003 showed that many Visas Mantis cases had been pending 60 days or more'.

Pallone wrote to Powell that 'I understand the need to apply a strict standard of review...when assessing visa applications of individuals from Pakistan, China, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Iraq and Sudan.

'My request is for the state department to remove India from this list of terrorist states. India is not only the largest democracy in the world and a pillar of stability in the South Asian region, but in addition, India has a civilian-controlled nuclear program and India has signed the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) with the US'.

Part of the reason for Pallone's unusually strong letter to Powell is that he is fighting for re-election from a constituency with a large Indian American community, but his letter has helped focus on a serious problem for Indian students and others seeking US visas.

Pallone pointed out that 'it is simply unfair for scholars, scientists and students from India who work in sensitive technology and military fields to be subject to the Visas Mantis procedures' when India and the US are claiming 'strategic partnership'.

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