“Hi, my name is Umar Saif. I’m sorry I couldn’t be here today. My area of interest is Networks for the ‘other’ four billion.”
Saif’s recorded remarks greeted attendees at Technology Review’s 11th annual Emerging Technology Conference at MIT. Saif, a 32-year old Pakistani scientist, innovator and MIT alumnus, was invited because he made Technology Review’s prestigious list of 35 innovators under 35. But he could not attend in person because his visa was locked in limbo – the conference has come and gone, but there is still no news of Saif’s visa.
Saif’s situation is unusual only because of his prominence. “He’s one of the most exciting young innovators in the world,” said Jason Pontin, Technology Review’s editor. Saif made the TR35 for “Improving connectivity in poor nations.” His SMSAll service launched in 2008 allows cell phone users to send mass text messages, helping to coordinate rescue operations, blood drives and political gatherings; Bitmate, launched in February 2011, is the “poor man’s broadband system.” The New York Times and other papers have reported on his work.
Virtually all Pakistanis connected to white-collar sectors, including this writer, have friends or family who’ve had their U.S. visas delayed or even denied, especially over the past decade. The security measures instituted since the 9/11 attacks may include flagging applicants for reasons that are never specified. Such applications get sent for administrative processing that slows down the process considerably – “longer” than 30 days, warns the State Department website.
This apparently random waiting game rankles Pakistani Americans. They think it fosters a low-grade anger that contributes to tensions between Pakistani and the U.S. “We need as much people-to-people contact between the two countries as possible – students, scholars, scientists, agriculturists, businessmen, etc.,” says Taha Gaya, executive director of the Pakistani American Leadership Center, or PAL-C. Gaya, 27, is a second-generation American of Pakistani origin.
It also hurts American businesses and educational institutions. The U.S. can’t fill all its openings for scientists, doctors and technologists. “If we’re not producing the supply we need, it’s really outrageous to not allow it to come in from elsewhere,” says Pontin.
One CEO at a company in Karachi, who asked not to be named, missed an important business meeting last year in the U.S., when his visa took eight months to arrive. His firm recently purchased a gas turbine for energy generation from General Electric.
“Look at the irony,” he said. “We bought a machine from a U.S. company, and our engineers couldn’t go for training. One got his visa within a month, the other five are still waiting.”
Some Pakistanis think things are getting better. Visa denials or delays are “more an exception than the norm”, says Khwaja Munir, a New York-based Pakistani American businessman and consultant. He acknowledges that this is anecdotal, based in part on knowing of cases that he thought were “unlikely”, receive a visa in as few as three days.
Things have certainly improved since 2010, when automatic enhanced security screening was made mandatory for all visitors from 14 mostly Muslim-majority countries. PAL-C, Gaya’s organization was one of several that protested this, with success.
“We got them (the security agencies) to see that they were casting the net too wide and using resources in an inefficient manner,” says Gaya.
That makes it even more maddening when cases like Saif’s or the Karachi CEO’s happen, where the visa seems to get stuck in the process for no apparent reason, for six months to over a year.
A visa application should take no more than 30 days, says the State Department. The normal processing times, according to the US embassy website, are three days for an interview appointment, and five days for visa processing.
Saif was called for an interview within 10 days of applying. “They practically didn’t ask me anything, just said that my case would take some time to process as it’s been sent for investigation,” said Saif, speaking via Skype from his home in Lahore.
Such cases, despite their infrequency, result in “losing all the goodwill” created by promptly issued visas, said Munir.
Goodwill would be a useful diplomatic tool, especially in these days of heightened tensions between Pakistan and America. Those tensions bubbled over recently when Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate that ”the Haqqani network” co-founded by the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s to undermine the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and now considered a terrorist organization , was “a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. [See Mullen’s comment]
Meanwhile, however, Pakistanis seeking visas to the US are likely to continue facing what most agree is the worst part of the process — the uncertainty.