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TAL trips skilled immigrants' return to US

Suman Guha Mozumder in New York | March 30, 2009

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A procedure known as the Technology Alert List -- used to screen visa applications or stamping of visa extensions of people coming to the United States for graduate studies, research or employment in certain specialized areas -- seems to have become a hurdle for some highly qualified Indians who want to return to the US.

Under the TAL -- mandated by the federal government in 2000 and revised in 2005 -- when a student or a scholar applies for a visa, or seeks to get an extended visa stamped while being in his/her home country, the consular official in that country must decide whether the research area fits any of the categories of the TAL to prevent possible export of 'goods, technology, or sensitive information'.

If the official is unsure, s/he may decide to send the visa application to Washington for review. Generally, it takes three to four cases for the process to complete, but can take months, and in some rare cases, even a year.

"For the last three-odd months, the US government is trying to decide whether my fully-public, US government- and industry-funded, published and award-winning research work is aiding terrorists before they would stamp my H1-B visa," said a bitter Umapati Sen*, who is doing cutting-edge research in the semiconductor industry after his masters and PhD from elite US schools with full-tuition waiver from fellowships and scholarships.

"As my petition for US permanent residency as an 'outstanding researcher' will take all of two years for the bureaucracy to process, I need the H1-B visa to travel on business in and out of the US," he added.

Sen, whose study and research were fully funded with US taxpayers' money because of his talent and ability, said when he went for the visa stamp in India, he was promised four to six weeks' processing time.

"I am left stranded without any expectation of accountability or transparency from the Department of State," he said. "The dysfunctional bureaucracy of US immigration laws is making me seriously rethink whether my talent and career are better contributed to, leveraged at and further developed at some other, more receptive nations, though I like to give back to the US, my adopted home that allowed me to professionally achieve nearly everything I have so far."

Anil Chandwani* is another Indian stuck in the TAL limbo. He arrived in the US in 2001 to pursue an MS in electrical engineering at Arizona State University. He got a job at a semiconductor company after completing his studies; he was sponsored by his employer for permanent residency.

Like many, he was in the 'never-ending queue of highly skilled immigrants waiting for their green card', but at least he had his H-1B visa. After five years of working, he went to India in December 2008 to visit his family and friends with his wife. His visa has been extended by the USCIS till 2010.

Like Sen, his problems began when he went to a US consulate in India to get his visa stamped. The consulate official would not stamp his visa, pending approval from Washington. That was in the first week of January. He is still waiting.

After checking online forums, Chandwani and Sen were surprised to see that there are thousands of such people from India and elsewhere facing the same problem. Most of them have a graduate degree from the US or a PhD, and most of them are working for top corporate companies or at top research universities.

'Most of them have financial and family ties like mortgage payments, US-born children or their families -- like mine,' Chandwani said.

* Names changed to protect identities


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