College Confidential

Counterterror Tactics Target Foreign Students

The year was 1950, and Pravin Bhatt remembers being the only Indian in New Orleans. He was a young doctor from a small town in Gujarat, in western India, and Tulane University was the only school in the United States teaching tropical medicine. "I just wrote to them, and two or three weeks later, I got a telegram," Bhatt says.

He arrived to find that he was one of just six students in the program, three of them foreign—the Korean War, which began that year, had robbed Tulane of many of its students. But despite the war and its attendant paranoia, Bhatt says he always felt welcome. "India was just independent and there was a lot of sympathy for trying to help India," he says. "It was a new democracy."

There was one moment, however, when he felt the cold gaze of suspicion. Bhatt had been hired to do research in New Orleans. Shortly before his job began, a dark-suited federal agent paid him a visit. "Someone from the FBI or CIA came to ask me if I knew anything about these people who ran the government," he says. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, had steadfastly refused to align himself with the United States and openly admired the socialist system. "I said that Nehru is very sincere in what he does and democracy is the first thing that he will do," Bhatt says.

The National Commission on Terrorism recommends monitoring foreign students for possible terrorist activity.
illustration by Jonathan Weiner
The National Commission on Terrorism recommends monitoring foreign students for possible terrorist activity.

"The tendency is to always look at people from certain countries, certain racial groups."

The inquiry didn't hamper his career. Bhatt went on to become a professor at Yale University Medical School, where he is now retired, and along the way did virus research in some of the most sensitive facilities in the United States. The attitudes about foreign students in the 1950s, he says, were part of the larger political climate—the U.S. allowed foreign students into the country partly to improve its image abroad when they returned home. "This was never said in so many words, but they wanted us to represent the U.S. well," Bhatt says. "Students are the best ambassadors."

In the 50 years since Pravin Bhatt first came to New Orleans, the educational landscape has changed. More than 500,000 foreign students are studying in the United States, and their presence in university graduate and undergraduate programs is no longer a curiosity—Tulane, for example, has 900 foreign nationals among its 11,000 students. But America's suspicions about foreign students never quite disappeared. They simply took on a different form, permeating the bureaucracy that entangles student visa holders but remaining largely invisible to society at large.

That changed in June, when the National Commission on Terrorism released a report recommending, among other things, that the federal government begin a concerted, nationwide effort to monitor foreign students for possible terrorist activity. The recommendations have prompted a flurry of objections from civil liberties groups, university organizations, and even some former CIA officials. But few realize that what the commission urges is simply better access to information that the government already collects and stronger enforcement of existing laws governing foreign students. The commission is reminding foreign students what they should already know—for them, academic freedom does not really exist.

The commission, manned by academic and political heavyweights in the fields of national security and diplomacy, was formed in 1998 after the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and charged with making a set of recommendations about how the United States might better combat terrorist activity. The revelation that one of the World Trade Center bombing suspects had come to the United States on a student visa prompted particular concern about the security risk posed by foreign students. There was no pattern of terrorist activity among foreign students that the commission could study, just one outrageous incident and a command to never let it happen again.

The group's 28-page report doesn't mention foreign students until page 12. It acknowledges that the flow of students is tiny compared to total immigration and that the threat they pose is minimal. But because a mechanism for monitoring them is already in place, through an INS program launched in 1997, the commission urges Congress to take advantage of it. The Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students, or CIPRIS, was developed as part of the 1996 overhaul of federal immigration law. Launched in 1997 as a pilot program in 21 universities in the Southeast, CIPRIS makes information about a student's visa status, academic program, and other activities available through the Internet to the INS, Department of State, consular officials, and the United States Information Agency. The commission said CIPRIS "could become a model for a nationwide program monitoring the status of foreign students."

Since the pilot program began, NAFSA: Association for International Education, the country's largest organization of university officials who deal with foreign students, has voiced its reservations about CIPRIS, but the program has already been signed into federal law, and the INS is mandated to implement a nationwide program by 2003. Barring congressional intervention, the best that NAFSA can do is to temper the law's implementation to prevent it from burdening schools or students. For example, after the INS proposed last year to have universities collect the fees that would fund CIPRIS, NAFSA objected, saying it would turn universities into bill collectors. Instead, the group proposed having students pay the fee when they apply for a visa, money the government keeps even if the visa is denied. Essentially, the students would pay for their own monitoring.

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