Highlighting Visa Issues in Scientific Conferences

Problems and applicable solutions

Hady Elsahar
Jun 9, 2018 · 8 min read

Machine Learning and NLP are highly paced science fields particularly in the recent years. Already for researchers with an easy access to resources, it can prove challenging to keep up to date with the latest developments. It becomes even more extreme if taking into consideration researchers with less resources ready at their availability. This unfortunately creates a fertile environment for creating biases leading to more and more under represented groups.

Diversity in AI fields has been a matter of concern and discussion of the scientific community. It has lead to various efforts of closing this gap, such as: Black in AI, WIML and WINLP. These initiatives are trying and have been successful to a good extent to embrace diversity in those fields.

Following those steps I would like to highlight a matter of concern to myself and many other researchers in our field which has not been adequately discussed in the community and definitely need someone to advocate for and push forward for solutions.

VISA Issues in Scientific Conferences

Unlike citizens of USA and The European Union who can book their tickets and travel to a huge percentage of the world without any visa requirements, the rest of the citizens in the world have to obtain a visa before hand.

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Visa requirements for European Union citizens. Source: Wikimedia commons
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Visa requirements for Chinese citizens. Source: Wikimedia commons
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Visa requirements for Egyptian citizens. Source: Wikimedia commons

Applying for Visas includes a process which is usually expensive, not transparent, include delays and full of anxiety of missing your planned schedule. This becomes a serious matter for any researcher with a lifestyle packed with conference travelling all over the year.
One of the most important and exciting parts of our work is to meet other researchers who work in our field and to connect to them. Those restrictions not only disallow researchers from travelling and presenting their work, but also remove the opportunity of this exact kind of networking.

This is not only a missed opportunity for the researchers who couldn’t obtain a visa but also for our community that can benefit from a more diverse input in conferences.

This matter is even more critical and heart breaking for Junior researchers, because the conference they are trying to get to might be their first/only chance to promote their hard earned publications and potentially get a career opportunity. Given that they might not be able to be funded again by their institutes for another travel unless they have a good reason to go.

Here are some examples:

It’s not all Trump’s fault: Why holding conferences outside of USA is not the solution?

Having this discussion during NAACL 2018 conference in New Orleans made a lot of people put all the blame on trump’s immigration policy.

Part of this is Donald Trump’s fault, indeed Trump policies have imposed many new restrictions such as:

Travel Ban: A law pushed by Trump causing citizens of several countries from Islamic backgrounds (Iran, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Syria) being banned from visiting US. As a consequence many students of those countries being locked in USA and can’t leave for the fear of not being able to return to continue their studies.

The DS-5535 Form: A tough new social media vetting for US visa applicants

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You can check the form from here

Not only that this questionnaire contains such intractable and humiliating questions that groups top researchers in their fields with fraudsters and potential terrorists all together.

But also:

Asking for more information will inevitably increase the administrative overhead, and will likely result in increased delays to visa applications.

Having said that asking conferences’ organizers to move all conferences to Europe/Canada/Australia might not be even a solution. Here is why:

  1. Visa delays and rejections happen everywhere in the world, and in theUSA even before Trump

2. Many foreign students are trapped in USA and cannot leave because of the Travel Ban.

3. USA is part of the world. USA is a great market with lots of big tech companies, notable universities and top researchers living and working in USA as much as other different places in the world. We shouldn’t exclude this community either, as it can be beneficial for any conference. Realistically, it would be difficult to exclude the USA from the conference organization.


One solution to this problem can be engaging in politics, forcing governments to change their immigration policies. Which can be quite challenging considering the recent rise of right wing populism in western politics in the last years.

Another solution could be to organize all scientific conferences in the Maldeves — the only place on earth with no tourism visa requirement.

Until any of those solutions become applicable following suggestions for realistic approaches of solving the problem at hand.(Kudos to every one engaged in the discussion in person or on twitter):

1- The “Present Anywhere” policy

One simple solution: Many of the existing scientific conferences are part of associations or have a twin conference. Researchers who face a visa rejection / or a delay that prevents them from attending the conference, get their presentations automatically moved to the next conference, given they can prove their honest attempt of obtaining a visa in time.

As a first step to find a solution, Hal Daume III a Professor in UMD & a principal researcher in MSR, took the first initiative to put this idea into action. During NAACL2018 he created this petition to be signed by all NLP researchers who are concerned with this matter and to be sent to *ACL boards. While this provides a small additional overhead for the conference organisation, it would be to great benefit for our community and show our commitment to a truly diverse research community.

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This initiative gained a wide attention on social media and the petition was signed by 200+ NLP researchers in few days including big names in the field such as Chris Manning, Samy Bengio and many others.

The letter has been already sent to the *ACL boards however you still can sign this petition and it will be updated with your name.

2- Collecting statistics: understanding the dimension of the problem

It seems that there is no standard way until as of now to calculate the number of people who didn’t get their visa for each conference. A better way to do this by conference organizers is to mine the conference registration lists and asking those who asked for a visa invitation letter but didn’t register or didn’t show up in the registration desk.

3- Organising/Sponsoring Better video conferencing:

Support of Video conferencing and live streaming is becoming more and more available in conferences these days.

Yet, there are still some issues such as lack of organization, funding, and technical issues. Availability of video conferencing solutions should be taken seriously as one of the vital requirements of organizing “tech” conferences.

Having said that, a conference is much more than just talks, there are poster sessions, recruitment sessions and networking events. This is a space for more and more creative solutions on how to virtually attend a conference.

For example, those cool robots from WINLP2018 workshop in NAACL2018 were used to help researchers who couldn’t attend the workshop to virtually present their posters.

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Picture from @WiNLPWorkshop at #NAACL2018 by @frimelle

4- Professional visa counselling services

Visa issues are also the problem of every business seeking to work and recruit internationally. Big tech companies seeking and promoting diversity in their work places have accordingly offered some solutions to those problems which we can learn from while organizing scientific conferences.

I have learned about Visa counselling services and how useful they are while planning my internship this summer with Bloomberg in London. Bloomberg is one of the companies that really promote the idea of being an “equal opportunity employer”, which I really appreciate a lot. I have personally noticed how this inflected in the diversity in the accepted interns during our orientation day.

Bloomberg thankfully offered me Fragomen services to plan my visa application. Though having applied for UK visas several times before, this time I was a lot less anxious about the process.
In brief, Visa counselling services give you the right advice with how to apply for Visas and the required papers — so no more claims about missing required documents.

Afterwards, they book an appointment for you with the embassy and help you by filling the forms for you.

How can I help?

If you are an Individual researchers:

  • Help us highlighting this problem. If you or your colleague got rejected a visa or couldn’t attend a conference please post about it and send to everyone whose voice could be heard.
  • Volunteer in Workshops that promote diversity in your field here are some I know in NLP and ML: Black in AI, WIML and WINLP
  • Sign the petition described above or take the initiative and create one for your research field.
  • If you are from an underrepresented group in NLP sign yourself to this directory
  • Send me personally or in comments below if your personal experiences and any ideas that could help solving this problem.

If you are an event organizer:

  • Take the racial/gender diversity in your event as one of its key metrics of success.
  • Collect and publish statistics about those who couldn’t attend your event and leave no one behind.
  • Create an inclusivity sponsorship to attract enterprise funds for promoting diversity in your events. This fund can be used to apply any of the solutions described above, for example: recruiting professional visa counselling. This can also remove the overhead of sending personalized visa invitation letters if you are a conference chair.

ps: This blog post is highly aligned with my personal experience with #NAACL2018. My apologies if you find that this blog post is under representing other research fields or other aspects of visa and immigration problems.

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