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Delay on visa could scuttle cancer grant

Harvard scientist's $750,000 at stake

Loling Song is one of thousands of immigrants each year whose permanent residency applications are held up because of FBI background checks.

But in her case, that delay has consequences that go beyond a life held in limbo: Song, who was born in China, is a scientist at Harvard Medical School, and the recipient of a $750,000 grant for breast cancer research from the National Cancer Institute.

Unless her application for permanent residency is approved by Nov. 30, Harvard Medical School will lose Song's research funding.

The biophysicist sued officials at the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI in US District Court in Boston last week to try to bring a successful conclusion to her quest for a green card, which began in April 2004.

``It strains credulity that the United States Government . . . could not finish a security check . . . during more than two years," the lawsuit said. ``This unconscionable delay is a denial of . . . due process . . . and will result in a major disruption of Dr. Song's medical research on breast cancer, an issue of national interest."

Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Shawn A. Saucier said his department, a division of Homeland Security, processed about 1.3 million applications for residency and citizenship last year, and that about 99 percent of applications are cleared within six months.

``I'm sure applicants are very frustrated, and we're frustrated as well," Saucier said. ``We want to continue to pursue efficient processing, but we simply cannot do so at the cost of national security."

FBI spokesman Bill Carter said delays like those that held up Song's residency application are unfortunate, but that background checks can be complicated.

``The FBI priority remains to protect the United States from a terrorist attack, and to that end we must ensure the proper balance between security and efficiency," he said.

But Song is running out of time. Under National Institutes of Health rules, the recipient of a grant must be a legal permanent resident; the Institutes have extended Song's previous deadline by two months.

After she applied for residency, Citizenship and Immigration Services agreed that Song is an immigrant ``of extraordinary ability" and that because of her work she merited a ``national interest waiver," which qualified her application for speedier processing.

Since then, the applications of Song, her husband, and son, who all are citizens of the Netherlands, have been held up because of the FBI check.

Song and her husband called immigration authorities repeatedly to speed the process along, and the offices of Representative Michael E. Capuano and Senator Edward M. Kennedy have interceded on her behalf. Neither Song nor her lawyer agreed to be interviewed.

``Dr. Song is one of the promising researchers who have helped make this country a world leader, and we certainly understand the need for the security clearance process," said Kevin Casey, director of government relations at Harvard University. ``But we would hope it wouldn't be an impediment to someone of her stature conducting the research that the NIH sees such value in."

Scientists born in China are among those who face the biggest hurdles, said Al Teich, director of science and policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, because the government is concerned that profitable technologies developed by scientists working here will make their way to China, where intellectual property standards are not as rigorous.

``We benefit enormously from the contributions of foreign scientists in this country," Teich said. ``And to the extent that we make it more difficult for those people to get into this country and stay in this country, well, we are shooting ourselves in the foot, really."

Yvonne Abraham can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

(Correction: Because of an editing error, the headline on a story in yesterday's City & Region section mischaracterized the immigration application of Harvard scientist Loling Song. Her application is for permanent residency status. Song already has a visa.)

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