MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. For Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, this has been a week to focus on management reforms. She's overhauling U.S. foreign assistance and redeploying American diplomats to do more to promote democracy around the world. Condoleezza Rice is also trying to help the U.S. government overcome a major image problem that the U.S. is not a welcoming country. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:
When physicist Richard Garwin was at the White House receiving his National Medal of Science in 2003, he managed to have a brief chat with President Bush and bring up a big concern in the academic community.
Mr. RICHARD GARWIN (Physicist): I told him I thought that the visa problem was just killing us, that after 9-11, visas were not being issued promptly, and the uncertainty and the delay was causing people to choose Australia or Britain over the United States for doing their graduate work.
KELEMEN: Scientists were missing conferences, and students weren't getting their visas in time to begin classes. This was a problem Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice clearly understood, according to our counselor, Philip Zelikow.
Mr. PHILIP ZELIKOW (Counselor of the Department of State): We've mobilized after 9-11 for very understandable reasons, but as a result, had created an America that seemed formidable to come to, with all kinds of hurdles for people to get in here, and we were no longer seen as a welcoming country.
KELEMEN: So Secretary Rice joined together with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff this week to try to put out the welcome mat. Secretary Rice, a former Provost of Stanford University, said the State Department will help students get their visas early, well before their classes begin, and speed up background checks on scientists who need special clearance.
Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Secretary of State): A Russian scientist, for example, who applied for a visa two years ago, would have waited 75 days, perhaps even longer, while his application underwent additional screening and review. Today, that review time would take less than two weeks.
KELEMEN: By most accounts, things are getting better. The number of students receiving visas is up, and Al Teich, of the American Association of the Advancement of Science, says he's hearing few complaints.
Mr. AL TEICH (American Association of the Advancement of Science): What we've seen is a substantial decline in the number of complaints and horror stories of people who have gotten in trouble and come to us. That kind of negative evidence suggests that things are, in fact, improving.
KELEMEN: He's still worried about some potential new restrictions on foreign scientists doing their research here, and he'd like to see the State Department allow students to renew their visas here, rather than having them leave the U.S. to apply.
Mr. TEICH: But that makes life difficult to go out of the country and not know whether you're going to be able to get back in a timely fashion. And I know that some universities have advised their foreign students not to go home, just to stay here and not take that risk.
KELEMEN: Richard Garwin, the physicist who bent President Bush's ear on the issue, is also taking a wait and see approach. He welcomed the Rice-Chertoff initiative but said it didn't come in time for a conference he's planning with Chinese scientists.
Mr. GARWIN: We just cannot hold it in California with the expectation that they would get visas in time. We're going to hold this meeting in Vancouver.
KELEMEN: He's waiting to see how much of the promised reforms become reality. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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