by Robert Sedgwick
There has been much hand wringing in the press and on Capitol Hill lately over delays and snags in the plans to reform America’s student-visa system. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, politicians and journalists alike have been clamoring for stricter controls to prevent potential terrorists from falling through the cracks and improve national security. However, the computerized, student-tracking system, which constitutes the backbone of the domestic defense scheme, is still being tested and will not be up and running until sometime next year.
International students quickly became the focus of the security crackdown after it was discovered that at least one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Hani Hanjour, had entered the United States on a student visa, but never actually attended the classes he had enrolled in. Under the proposed student-tracking system colleges and universities, in addition to vocational schools, training programs and flight schools, would be required to notify the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) when a student does not show up for class, drops out of a program or changes a major.
In early November, the White House released a statement recognizing the important contributions international students make to college campuses in the United States, but expressed deep concerns over foreign nationals who use the education and training they acquire in this country to harm Americans. Only a few days earlier, President Bush had ordered his top aids to clamp down on the issuing of student visas, and to close existing security gaps in the system.
Perhaps more than anyone else, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Panel on Technology, Terrorism and Government Information, has emerged as the most outspoken advocate for student visa reform. Shortly after the horrific attacks on New York and Washington Ms. Feinstein called for a six-month moratorium on all student visas, but quickly backed down under pressure from higher education organizations. College and university officials bluntly stated that such a move would be financially devastating to their institutions.
“Our nation’s borders have become a sieve.”
— Sen. Dianne Feinstein
Feinstein and her colleague Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) are currently sponsoring a bill that would ban only those students from countries that the U.S. State Department considers sponsors of terrorism: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, North Korea and Cuba. In 2000-2001, a total of 3,761 students attending U.S. institutions of higher education hailed from those watch-list countries. The proposed law would, however, make exceptions in special cases based on extensive background checks.
“Our nation’s borders have become a sieve,” Senator Feinstein warned when introducing the Visa Entry Reform Act of 2001. The new legislation, she said, would “prevent fraud and illegal entry, and impose new restrictions on student visas to prevent misuse of the program by those who would do this nation harm.”
Similar fears and apprehensions of student terrorists infiltrating porous borders have been consistently echoed in the press. Many newspapers, including the liberal New York Times and Washington Post, have run articles and editorials since the attacks specifically targeting foreign students as potential security risks. The staunchly conservative Wall Street Journal ran a story recently about gun-slinging bounty hunters trying to land contracts with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) so they can go after renegade foreign students who don’t show up for classes or who violate their visas.
Are International Students Being Unfairly Targeted?
Many education professionals and civil libertarians feel that international students are being unfairly singled out for scrutiny, and in some cases considered suspect simply because of their nationalities and/or religious affiliations. The FBI has specifically named eight countries as breeding grounds for terrorists: Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen.
In addition, the Justice Department also asked colleges and universities to help authorities locate international students who were among a list of 5,000 foreign nationals wanted for questioning by the FBI. Institutions that refused to cooperate were threatened with sanctions.
“The demonizing of foreign students is clearly wrong,” said Kenneth Rogers, a dean at Indiana University’s Office of International Services
, who is deeply disturbed by all the rumblings in the press. “It’s a complete misrepresentation of the truth. Foreign student visas are actually harder to get than most other types of visas. The public should be made to understand that foreign students contribute to the diversity and intellectual vibrancy of universities and don’t pose a threat,” he said.
In addition, foreign students constitute big business. Last year they contributed more than $12 billion to the U.S. economy, and their numbers have steadily increased from 53,107 in 1960 to 514,723 in 1999-2000.
According to the INS, 570,000 people entered the United States in 1999 on foreign student visas. That same year, more than 30 million people were admitted on business and
tourist visas. Students make up less than two percent of the total number of foreign nationals currently residing in this country. So why, one might ask, is the focus of the visa reform movement disproportionately focused on students?
“If the Justice Department and INS went after those other visa holders, the business lobbies and the tourism industry would never stand for it,” said Rogers. “By imposing stricter controls on student visas the government is trying assure the public that it is taking steps to counter the threat [of terrorism].”
Since the attacks, politicians and others have admirably issued public statements differentiating between terrorists on the one hand, and immigrants and Muslims on the other. Nothing, or very little, however, has been said about students. So while immigrants, foreign business people and tourists are safeguarded by powerful lobbies, moneyed interests, and public interest groups, international students do not enjoy the same level of protection.
“The media have not always been well informed [with regard to international students], nor have they always reported accurately their contributions to the U.S.—in terms of dollars, diversity, democratization abroad and good will abroad,” she said.
“Students are having increasing difficulty at borders and feeling singled out.”
— Ellen Dussourd
The new proposals for student visa reform and the overall apprehensive mood reflected in the press and in the official statements of America’s leaders would suggest there has been a profound change in attitude toward international students since Sept. 11. Some education professionals have even suggested that in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the federal government no longer seems interested in facilitating the flow of international students to the United States.
“I’ve never seen such a striking paradigm shift,” said Peter Briggs, director of the Office for International Student Scholars
at Michigan State University. “Before Sept. 11, you had active support [from the government and even the press] to compete with contenders like Australia and Britain for international students. And then after Sept. 11, there was this radical change where international students are suddenly looked at as potential security risks.”
Ellen Dussourd, director of International Student and Scholar Services
at the State University of New York at Buffalo, says that the changing climate is taking its toll out on foreign students at her institution.
“Students are having increasing difficulty at borders and feeling singled out,” she said. “Even normal questioning at the border is being misinterpreted as highly intrusive. We are seeing more anxious students coming to our office after ‘incidents.’ More and more students are also calling our office and asking if it’s safe for them to go to Canada. I definitely think that the level of anxiety and paranoia is increasing.”
Most University Officials Support System
Most college and university officials currently support the implementation of the student tracking system, officially known as the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System
(SEVIS), but with reservations. The details of how and when colleges and universities will be required to report information on students to the government still have to be worked out, and many object to the imposition of a $95 nonrefundable fee (payable only in U.S. dollars) on visa applicants.
Although Senator Feinstein has requested $32.3 million in funding for SEVIS, the INS reports that an additional 1.5 million is still needed to get the system up and running. Feinstein and Kyl insist that students pay for at least part of the database, but others want Congress to pick up the tab.
Many educators say it is simply unfair to levy a tax on half a million international students for the heinous actions of a few deviants. A large number of these students, they say — particularly those from the developing world — do not own credit cards, do not have access to computers and are hard-pressed to acquire U.S. currency.
Critics of the fee argue that the $95 would probably not deter many students who enroll in expensive two- and four-year degree programs, but would certainly discourage those who were interested in shorter-term programs like summer English-language courses. For students who haven’t gotten their visas yet, the $95 charge constitutes a significant risk. Technical schools and community colleges, which depend heavily on foreign students who pay full tuition fees, would be particularly hard hit.
The biggest concern among education professionals right now is that the SEVIS fee, longer application procedures and increased scrutiny could steer students away from the United States and toward competitor countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.
John Ebersole, a Boston University dean cautions that many of the proposed security measures aimed at international students may prove to be counter-productive in the long run. “At a time when we are all attempting to recover from economic recession and wanting to increase cross-cultural understanding around the world, we should not be building financial and procedural barriers that have little or nothing to do with true security,” he said.
International education is obviously big business for many colleges and universities, but officials are quick to point out there is more than just money at stake here.
“Universities in the U.S. would be severely affected if international students stopped coming,” warned Stephen Dunnett, vice provost for international education at the State University of New York at Buffalo
. “For one thing we would lose a multi-billion dollar export industry, but more troublesome would be the damage it would do to our research programs in the natural sciences, engineering and computer science. It would take us years to rebuild those programs,” he said.
Fallout Hasn’t Been as Bad as Expected
For most colleges and universities the fallout from Sept. 11 has not been as bad as expected. In fact, many institutions actually reported increases in foreign student enrollments since the terrorist attacks.
The University of Massachusetts — Amherst reports that applications are currently up for both undergraduate and graduate students by about 25 percent. “The real test, however, will be the yield,” said Barbara Burn
, associate provost at the school’s International Programs Office
. “And this will not be clear for several months.”
Richard Tudisco, director of the International Students and Scholars Office
at Columbia University, says the impact of the terrorist attacks remains more potential than actual and that the heightened level of apprehension throughout the country has not adversely affected foreign student enrollments at his institution.
“Our students tend to be a little more sanguine about these matters, many having had experienced terrorism at home,” he said.
Although the impact on overall foreign student enrollments in the U.S. has been negligible, there has been a significant drop in the number Middle Eastern students applying to American institutions of higher education.
Educational Testing Service
recently reported that the number of Graduate Record Examinations delivered in the Middle East and in Pakistan since Sept. 11 have been consistently down compared to last year.
According to a poll conducted by International Admissions Communications Survey most colleges and universities reported delays in visa issuance, mainly with male students from Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey.
“Parents are afraid to send their kids here where they may be subjected to interrogations and harassment.”
— William Rugh
William Rugh, president of AMIDEAST
, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to facilitating educational exchanges between the peoples of the U.S. and the Middle East, says that the impact has been quite significant in the Arab World.
“Student visa demand [in the Middle East] is half of what it was a year ago, and student advising is down,” he explained. “Attitudes about studying in the United States have definitely changed since Sept. 11. Parents are afraid to send their kids here where they may be subjected to interrogations and harassment.”
Jerome Bookin-Weiner, who heads the Office of International Programs
at Colorado State University also agrees that the hesitancy among people in Middle Eastern countries to come to the United States for higher education in the aftermath of Sept. 11 has more to do with perceived anti-Arab and anti-Muslim biases than with the implementation of harsh security measures.
“Quite naturally, people don’t want to put themselves in the position of being made uncomfortable,” said Bookin-Weiner who recently returned from the region. “Everyone I saw in the Middle East had friends or relatives who had personal stories to tell of such treatment or had heard reports either first hand or via the local media.”
As a result of delays and difficulties in obtaining visas, some respondents to the IAC survey replied that attracting foreign students had in fact become more difficult since Sept.11, and most anticipated higher visa denial rates and longer delays in visa issuance for the fall semester.
“Potential bureaucratic delays can and likely would make it more difficult for international students to enter the USA,” said Urbain DeWinter, associate provost of international programs at Boston University
. “If we put too many objects in their way, we might begin to see a slowing down, if not a decrease, in the number of students and visiting scholars coming to this country, and that would be a loss for all of us.”
In Memoriam: Barbara Burn
Dr. Barbara B. Burn, associate provost for international programs at the University of Massachusetts — Amherst, passed away on Feb. 24. She was 77 years old.
Dr. Burn is recognized as one of the great pioneers in the field of international education, and her work and accomplishments have been applauded by colleagues the world over. Under her tutelage, the International Programs Office at UMass greatly increased the number of students studying abroad and established exchange agreements with institutions of higher education in more than 100 countries.
Burn was a prolific writer and had recently finished a book of essays for the International Association of Universities dealing with the future of general education. She was also a strong supporter of World Education News & Reviews (WENR).
In 1993, she wrote an article for WENR
entitled “Forces Affecting the University of the 21st Century
,” which talks about the impact of market forces and technology on higher education. She accurately predicted that universities in the 21st century would be compelled to become more international as they responded to an increasingly globalized economy.
We dedicate this issue of WENR to her memory.