Just Wondering About J-1s?

The primary visa that allows foreign scientists to come to NIH for postdoctoral training is a three-year Exchange Visitor Program J-1 visa. As recently as 1994, the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) routinely granted extensions to visiting scientists to extend their J-1 visas to five years - or the maximum of six years - so that they could complete their training. Suddenly, in 1995, USIA pulled the rug out from under NIH's foreign training program and refused to grant most requests for J-1 extensions.

"This is unacceptable," says Deputy Director for Intramural Research Michael Gottesman. "We allow American citizens up to five years to complete a postdoc here. It is not reasonable to expect all of our foreign scholars to complete their training in three years." Gottesman and Associate Director for Intramural Affairs Philip Chen jumped into action last summer, meeting with USIA officials and, with encouragement from that agency, drafted a Memorandum of Understanding that would delegate to NIH the authority to extend NIH's foreign trainees J-1 visas to five years, or infrequently, to six years. The document was drafted and sent to USIA less than a week after the August meeting.

Unfortunately, in ensuing months, USIA continued to deny essentially all J-1 extension requests from NIH. On Dec. 13, Gottesman and Sylvia Funk - the Fogarty officer responsible for NIH's Exchange Visitor Program - again met with USIA officials and discussed steps that could be taken to alleviate the current situation. "We have not yet received the final word from USIA," reports Gottesman. "We hope to hear in early 1996."

On another front, Congress is expected to take up again in 1996 immigration legislation that may have multiple ramifications for NIH's ability to hire senior foreign scientists. Although an immigration-reform bill drafted by Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., appeared unlikely to clear Congress in 1995, as The Catalyst went to press, political observers expected a similar measure to be introduced this year. The 1995 bill would have required U.S. employers hiring new permanent foreign workers - including scientists - to pay a fee equivalent to 10% of the immigrant's annual wage and benefits into a training fund for U.S. workers. A similar piece of legislation introduced in the House in 1995 by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, would have also eliminated the "outstanding researchers" designation that exempts senior scientists from the requirement that employers prove that no U.S. workers are available for such jobs. The Senate bill would also make it easier for NIH to hire foreign scientists as nonimmigrant temporary workers on H-1B visas by requiring only that they be paid a salary that is competitive with similar research institutions, rather than one that is competitive with the private sector, as is currently required.

- C.H. and R.K.

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