College Confidential

Counterterror Tactics Target Foreign Students

"They interrogate you as if they know you are tricking them but they just don't know how."

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 antiterrorism recommendation prompted a fresh round of criticism from NAFSA, which sent a letter to Congress and to President Clinton protesting the commission's characterization of foreign students. "There is no evidence that foreign students are a terrorism threat," NAFSA's executive director, Marlene Johnson, wrote. NAFSA spokesman Jon Gregory warns that, even if the program is implemented, university officials may balk at being turned into "deputized law enforcement officials." Furthermore, Gregory says, CIPRIS could do for immigration officials what computerized crime-tracking software has done for police work: enable a sort of racial profiling of foreign students. "The tendency is to always look at people from certain countries, certain racial groups," Gregory says.

Former ambassador Paul Bremer, chairman of the commission, argues that all the panel did was to reiterate the need for a computerized, nationwide system of monitoring students. "All foreign students have been monitored for more than three decades," Bremer says. "That's already part of the law. All we said is that there should be a nationwide program. . . . We did not take a position on any particular program, but we think that it [CIPRIS] is a good one."

Even while acknowledging that foreign students as a whole do not pose a particularly great potential threat, Bremer says monitoring would still be a useful way to better enforce existing laws. For example, students from countries designated by the U.S. as state sponsors of terrorism, such as Libya and Iran, are already barred from studying certain subjects, such as nuclear engineering. Under the present system, if a Libyan undergraduate student changes his major from English to nuclear physics, the school might record it, but his initial paperwork with the INS might never be updated. Even if it were, the violation might not be noticed. But once such data is computerized and universities are required to report it immediately, "that will be caught by CIPRIS," Bremer says.

Bremer acknowledges that a computerized system opens the door for abuse. "There's no excuse for using this or any other law in a discriminatory manner," he says. The only way to prevent that, he argues, is to allow the government to monitor everyone equally.

But university officials claim that gathering information in this new way is not necessarily neutral. In addition to creating a new type of information—data that can be manipulated and distributed immediately—CIPRIS requires universities to immediately report every change in a student's academic program. In doing so, CIPRIS could change the relationship between foreign students and universities, in which students perceive the school as their advocates. "If that perception is undermined, and we are now government agents giving the government more and more information, then that special relationship could be spoiled," says Harvey Charles, director of international education for Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

The response from foreign students has been muted. In Boston, Denver, and a few other cities, student organizations have protested the commission's recommendations in letters to the editor and public statements. But the laws implementing CIPRIS were passed years ago, as Bremer points out, and include a waiver of the Family Rights & Privacy Act, which otherwise protects the privacy of student records at any institution that receives federal education funds. To change them would require action by Congress, and, as foreigners who are not even considered immigrants under U.S. law, student visa holders have close to zero political clout. For many foreign students, the prospect of additional government surveillance simply reinforces the sense of being under suspicion. Foreign students must already submit reams of personal information even before their applications are considered, and then endure visa interviews that one New York City graduate student, an Israeli citizen, compared to mock interrogations by the Israeli army: "They interrogate you as if they know you are tricking them but they just don't know how."

Lai Yee, a student from Malaysia in New York University's biomedical science program, says that even if a monitoring system is put in place, the number of students applying for visas is unlikely to fall—the appeal of studying in the United States is too strong. "I don't think any of my friends would be bothered by it," she says.

Ironically, what may change is the impression that foreign students returning to their home countries take back with them—the very reason that the United States first accepted foreign students like Pravin Bhatt in the 1950s. "I see it in terms of freedom," says Harvey Charles, of Georgia Tech. "People come to this country from all over the world, and the one impression that people have is that this is a free country. If the government decides to go through with this, the perception of the United States could be compromised."

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