Last July, a British biologist strolled into the US embassy in London to get his temporary (J-1) visa stamped so he could return to his California lab. He wasn't worried, even after he learned he needed to undergo a background check. The last time he left London for the United States, a mere 15 months earlier, a background check delayed him for six months. He was told any later checks would be much quicker, so he had confidently returned to London for a wedding and scientific conference. The second round should take a few weeks, he was told. So he waited. And waited. The weeks turned into months; his experiments went stale, his colleagues struggled to work around his absence, and another team scooped him by publishing its findings on one of his projects.
Eight months later, Mohammad Sajid was finally cleared to return to the United States. The two background checks kept Sajid away from his work for more than a year since 2005. "The hardest part in the whole situation is that you never know how long it'll take," says Sajid, a codirector of the biochemistry division of the Sandler Center for Basic Research in Parasitic Diseases at the University of California, San Francisco. "You keep telling yourself, it could be any moment now."
Sajid, 40, who was born in Kenya, spent the long months tinkering with manuscripts, giving talks around Europe, and corresponding with the graduate students and postdocs he was supervising. To avoid taking a second apartment (he was still paying $1,200/month rent in San Francisco), Sajid stayed with his parents, siblings, and friends in England. Sajid tried to do some experiments in the Netherlands lab of one of his collaborators. But without the reagents that he had developed, he didn't get very far.
When his research stalled, another group working on the same project - investigating metacaspase, an enzyme involved in malaria transmission - published its findings (L. Le Chat et al., Mol Biochem Parasitol , 153:41-7, 2007). "My work [was] completely on hold," says Sajid.
Other scientists were affected by Sajid's prolonged absence. "It felt like the rug was pulled out from under our research," says James McKerrow, the principal investigator in Sajid's lab. Sajid "was responsible for ramping up the [screening] process" to find proteases that act as drug targets. "Compounds that would have moved on to the next level" were stalled, says McKerrow.
For visitors to the United States with a J-type visa, the State Department performs a preliminary check, and then sends the name to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a full background check, according to a spokesperson from the National Academies' International Visitors Office. (Spokespersons for the State Department and FBI say they cannot comment on specific cases.) To check on his status, Sajid, who says he has no criminal record, stayed in regular contact with UCSF's office for international students, which called congressional representatives to speed the process along.
Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law, says that government officials need only a suspicious name to justify holding someone for months. When you have a name that happens to be on a list of names to watch, "even if you're 10 months old, you're going to have a background check," she says. "Once a person's name gets flagged, there's not a whole lot you can do," agrees Adam Frank, a Bethesda, Md.-based immigration lawyer.
Since 2003, the National Academies has stepped in to assist 3,766 scientists who experienced trouble crossing the US border, but that's a small fraction of the total number of cases, according to a National Academies spokesperson. Of those scientists who receive assistance, most wait less than three months, and only six percent face delays of six months or longer.
Though he says this experience has left him extremely frustrated with the system, Sajid can joke about it now that he has returned to the United States. His siblings have threatened to marry him off to a US citizen before November, when he has to travel to England to obtain a more permanent (H-1) visa, because no renewals remain on his J-1 visa. But this time, he says, "I'm packing up my reagents and my flasks," and will have his students mail them if he's delayed - again.