Caught in the Crossfire

Anti-terrorism security measures will affect
foreign students and host universities

We are, so the myth goes, "a nation of immigrants." The tides of welcome, however, ebb and flow with the times, as one can see from such shameful examples as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the refusal of entry to the refugee ship St. Louis in 1939.

Today we are again at ebb—this time in a way that may affect foreign students in American colleges and universities, as well as American students who contemplate study abroad.

“I do think there are going to be changes in the student visa system,” said Cas Sowa, Moravian’s director of international study. “That’s a given.”

One of the aftereffects of September 11 is a virtual shutdown of the national immigration system, in response to admissions from the Immigration and Naturalization Service that it is too overworked, understaffed, and backlogged to keep track of resident aliens in the United States. Members of the al-Qaeda network lived and worked in this country for months preceding the terrorist attacks. Several, including at least one hijacker, entered the country on student visas; and no safeguards existed to make sure they enrolled at the colleges stated in their paperwork or to track their newfound interest in flight-training schools.

In fact, Sowa said, the INS had been planning a tracking program for students as long as four or five years ago. After a pilot version was set in place in several Southern states, the system was to have expanded to the whole country this year. But objections from college administrators of foreign-student programs, often about privacy issues and system processes , set the schedule back.
Then came September 11. But, as with the failure of airport security systems, the innocent are now being punished along with—and sometimes more than—the guilty.

The first responses were draconian. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) proposed legislation to place a moratorium on student visas for at least six months and to provide $32.3 million to the INS to implement an electronic tracking system for all visa-holders and resident aliens. The moratorium has since been shelved and the funding substantially reduced. It also has been proposed that the foreign students themselves pay for the tracking system with a $95 fee.

According to a Fox News report, there are some 500,000 foreign students enrolled in American colleges and universities. Between 10,000 and 11,000 are from countries with ties to international terrorism such as Libya, Iraq, and Sudan. Many of these students, politically opposed to their own governments, are virtual refugees; but others have been shown to be using student visas for cover.

Visas are issued at American consulates in the students’ country of origin, and poor coordination of intelligence material is blamed for what has been a rubber-stamp process. Consular officers have no access to FBI or CIA databases that might indicate questions about an applicant’s political affiliations.

But student visas represent about 2 percent of all visas, Sowa said. “This whole response is so short-sighted. It makes it possible for [the government] to say ‘We’ve done something about this’ ... to make themselves look responsive to recent events.”

With the prospect of visa restrictions in view, higher education officials have issued cautions and warnings. The open admissions policy of the American higher education system has fostered enormous political and economic goodwill. But as with anything that has taken a long time to build, it can be destroyed overnight.

“The loss to the United States in terms of intellectual accomplishment ... and economic activity will be enormous,” said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, whose membership comprises most American colleges and universities. “It will take decades to undo the damage that even a ‘temporary’ ban will create.”

The largest enrollments of foreign students are at the University of Southern California, New York University, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, according to ACE. Moravian, by contrast, has 26 foreign students, from countries ranging from the Czech Republic to Lebanon and Ethiopia to India.

Sowa says he has not been asked by the INS or any other agency to provide foreign-student records, either voluntarily or under subpoena. But several large universities have done so unasked.

The other side of the problem is the effect on American students who want to study abroad. Though expressions of interest at Moravian seem to be at their usual level, some schools already report a decline in inquiries about foreign study.

November 6, 2001

Caught in the Crossfire
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