March 25, 2009
By: Jim Endrizzi, Associate Director, California Institute of Technology; Simone Kueltz, International Scholar Specialist, University of California-Davis; and Ivana Hrga-Griggs, Assistant Director, Harvard University
Special thanks to Abigail Rupp, Deputy Chief, Visa Office, Post Liaison Division, U.S. Department of State, for reviewing this document.
The NAFSA Travel Subcommittee of the International Student and Scholar Regulatory Practice Committee (ISS-RP) recognizes that increases in regular processing times of Security Advisory Opinions (SAOs), especially Mantis SAOs, by the Department of State (DOS) have created significant delays for many students and scholars who have recently applied for a visa. We realize that when such delays occur, students and scholars, as well as many institutional leaders (faculty, deans, presidents), expect their immigration personnel to intervene on behalf of the institution to ensure that these delays are minimized. This situation puts many international student and scholar (ISS) advisers in the awkward position of trying to manage expectations. Below is some information that we hope will help ISS advisers caught in such a situation understand the Mantis SAO process and respond to inquiries about delayed students and scholars.
What is a Mantis SAO?
Before a U.S. Consular Officer (CO) can issue a visa, the CO must determine if an applicant is eligible for that visa. To do this, the CO considers why an applicant may not be eligible for a visa. Possible ineligibilities are spelled out in different sections of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Many ISS advisers are aware of the most common ineligibility, INA 214(b), which requires an applicant to establish nonimmigrant intent before being eligible to receive a visa. However, some ISS advisers are less aware of the ineligibilities found in other sections of the INA. For example, INA 212(a)(3)(A) outlines general ineligibilities that exist related to concerns the United States has about security.
The Mantis SAO process is based on this section of the law. Specifically, the Mantis SAO process addresses INA 212(a)(3)(A)(i)(II), which is concerned about applicants who are "principally" or "incidentally" involved in exporting "goods, technology or sensitive information" from the United States.
Unlike 214(b), in which an individual CO can make a final determination as to whether or not an applicant has demonstrated his or her nonimmigrant intent, 212(a)(3)(A) requires others within DOS to determine whether or not an applicant is ineligible to enter the United States based on security related concerns. Therefore, if a CO has a security related concern about an applicant, the CO suspends the visa application process and requests an SAO.
DOS has provided guidance to COs about how to recognize and identify potential security related concerns during the course of an application. The most common resource used by COs in identifying some of the security related concerns is the Technology Alert List (TAL). The TAL includes a list of "Critical Fields" that helps guide COs in identifying applicants who may be involved in research areas or fields of study that could raise security concerns. The TAL is no longer publicly posted, but the NAFSA Adviser's Manual provides a list of fields from the last TAL version publicly published on the DOS Web site in 2002. See NAFSA Adviser's Manual 10.13.1.5: Mantis and Technology Alert List clearances.
Once a CO makes a determination that a visa applicant may be ineligible to enter the United States based on a security related concern, the CO requests an SAO. Once an SAO is pending, a CO cannot issue a visa until hearing from the Coordination Division at DOS, which is based in Washington, DC.
True to its name, the Coordination Division (CD) coordinates communications with a number of different Washington-based agencies. When an SAO is requested, the CD sends out a request to an undisclosed number of government agencies for input on whether or not they have concerns about the visa applicant. They must hear back from each agency before making a final determination on whether or not the applicant is eligible to receive a visa. Once a decision is made, the CD relays this information to the CO.
Why the recent increase in processing times of Mantis SAOs?
Unfortunately, we have not received a detailed official explanation why SAOs are taking so much longer to process since last winter. This problem may be connected to DOS or other agencies. One explanation provided by a DOS representative is that the increase in SAOs is due to an increase in the visa applications volume.
What can I do about an ongoing or pending Mantis SAO?
It is important to understand that once an SAO has been requested, nothing can be done to expedite the processing of an individual SAO. At best, ISS advisers can confirm that an individual's SAO is still in process. Sometimes, the SAO has been completed, but the consulate has not yet contacted the visa applicant.
To confirm that an SAO is in process, ISS advisers can contact the Public Inquiries Division at DOS. To contact the Public Inquiries Division, you can call 202.663.1225, or, if seeking clarification on F, M, or J visas, e-mail the Student/Exchange Visitor Visa Center at fmjvisas[at]state.gov. While DOS recommends that you wait at least 90 days from the interview date before inquiring about a case, you can check the status of a case at any time. Generally, when you contact Public Inquiries you will be told that the application has been received and is undergoing additional administrative review, and that the consulate will contact the applicant once this review has been completed.
Contacting the consulate will not yield any different information than can be provided by the Public Inquiries Division. Remember that the Consular Officer must wait for an official decision from the Coordination Division in Washington, DC, before issuing a visa. Furthermore, many consulates have posted on their Web site that visa applicants should not call the consulate. However, some consulates maintain a list of pending cases on their Web site that is updated fairly regularly (e.g., the Chennai Consulate Web site [http://chennai.usconsulate.gov/pendingprocessing.html]). Check the Web site for the particular consulate involved to see what information is available.
We also encourage you to report any applicants experiencing delays due to Mantis SAOs to NAFSA IssueNet - Report an Issue. NAFSA is not able to resolve specific cases; however, NAFSA is in continuous contact with DOS and needs the data submitted through IssueNet to note trends and advocate for broader changes to the SAO process.
Some ISS advisers may choose to contact their member of Congress about these types of delays. Decisions about contacting a congressional office should be discussed with others within your institution, particularly with government relations or public liaison professionals. If you choose to pursue this course of action, please understand that this will not likely impact the processing time of an individual case.
The National Academies of Sciences' International Visitors Office (IVO) also collects information on visa delays experienced by the scientific community; the IVO reports any cases that have been pending for longer than 60 days to DOS and provides ongoing reports to DOS and other associations. If the delay is longer than 60 days, ISS advisers may report the case to the IVO by accessing their Web site. However, like NAFSA, the IVO is not able to influence the process or resolve individual cases.
How do I advise students and scholars concerned about delays when traveling abroad?
- You can begin by assessing how real the concern of a Mantis SAO is for the student or scholar who is seeking guidance from you by looking at the Reciprocity Tables.
Reciprocity Tables: If you have not already done so, you should utilize reciprocity tables when discussing possible delays with a student or scholar. In the text below the table, there is a subsection titled "Special Clearance and Issuance Procedures – Nonofficial Travel." This section outlines any special clearances that an applicant may be subjected to. DOS has stated publicly that the information contained in this section is accurate and does guide CO decisions. Please note that the clearance procedure information for a specific country, reflected in the reciprocity table, can change.
For example, if you visit the Reciprocity Table for China, you will see this section states "Visas Mantis is strongly recommended for applicants with a background or purpose of trip that is listed in the TAL." Whereas for Germany, this section simply states "none." Remember, while the TAL is an important resource the COs use in determining who needs to go through the SAO process, it is not the only resource. Therefore, COs may subject applicants to Visa Mantis SAOs based on their discretion even if their research fields or fields of study are not listed on the TAL, or the Reciprocity Table states "none."
Students and scholars should factor possible delays into their travel arrangements, which also should be communicated to their host department/academic adviser etc.
- Remember that SAOs are valid for a certain length of time. Therefore, if someone was recently subjected to an SAO and must travel, their clearance may still be valid, even though their visa has expired. In these cases, travel is not as risky. For information about the duration of a clearance, which can vary from one visa class to the next, refer to the NAFSA Adviser Manual, section 10.13.5.1
- Familiarize yourself with the SAO process by reviewing the resources listed below. These resources, especially the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), provide information about how to better prepare the applicant for the interview with the CO. We recommend that applicants submit copies of their CVs, lists of publications, and letters with a detailed research description from their host institutions.
- Finally, if a student or scholar is at risk of an SAO, have a conversation about what your office is able to do if the student or scholar's application is delayed in order to manage expectations.
What resources are available to learn more about this process?
- NAFSA Manual, Section 10.13.1, Department of State Clearances
9 FAM 40.31 Notes (Sections N5.1-2 to N5.1-5)
- Includes, among other things, interview tips that DOS provides to Consular Officers when applying the TAL
Administrative Processing Information
Inquiry/contact information: *For F-1, M-1, and J-1 visa cases, e-mail DOS Student/Exchange Visitor Visa Center: firstname.lastname@example.org. *For all other visa cases/pending SAOs, call DOS Visa Services, Public Inquiries Division at 202.663.1225.