The following extracts were taken from Randy Morgans paper, Natural History Notes, Captive Management, Atta, 2001.
Agricultural Regulations: The United States Department of Agriculture, Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, Plant Protection & Quarantine (USDA-APHIS-PPQ) mandates that a Nonindigenous Species’ Permit must submitted and approved before non-native plant pests can be legally imported or moved across state lines. For example, a permit would be required for keeping any of the tropical Atta species, or for A texana if moved or held outside the areas of Texas or Louisiana where it occurs naturally.
USDA-APHIS-PPQ Non-indigenous Species Permits typically specify a number of conditions.
For example, institutions must draft Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), file these with the USDA, and are subject to periodic inspections to ensure compliance. All employees working with the permitted species must be properly trained and understand the importance of effective containment.
Specific conditions for leaf cutting ants state that public displays or other colony containment must be constructed from durable materials and prevent the escape of even the smallest workers. Queens must be maintained in designated nest chambers with physical excluders that prevent their movement but not that of the workers.
The permitting process has changed in recent years and is now predominantly an electronic format. A single person, typically an institutional representative, must be designated as the permit holder and pass a low-level security clearance. Additional details on USDA permit applications are on their website (http://www.aphis.usda.gov/plant_health/
Wildlife Regulations: All wildlife imported into the United States is subject to inspection by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to ensure compliance with international treaties and protection of endangered species. Depending on the country of origin, an Export Permit may also be required by the Fish & Wildlife Service. For more information see their website (http://www.fws.gov/
I suggest what you do is contact a university with a zoology department. Let them know you are interested in carrying out research on Leaf Cutters. Once you have made contact then apply for a permit and use your connection to the University to facilitate this. I am keen to find some way to facilitate a way to work in the US, the education and research route is the obvious one.