Crisis Ethics

••• Foreign Students Under the Microscope After 9-11

"I do understand the whole Pandora's box argument," says Harvey Charles, director of international education for Georgia Tech in Atlanta. But he says that his office collects mainly administrative details, not information about political activities or ideology. "If they wanted to go beyond that, then I think very real privacy issues would be raised," Charles says.

Whether this will actually happen is unclear. But foreign students, along with everyone else on the nation's college campuses, are already feeling other repercussions. "International students might think twice before protesting U.S. policy in certain parts of the world, if you know what I mean," says Georgia Tech's Charles. AALDEF's Mark is even more grim about campus dissent. "Surveillance at protests? I think that already occurs," he says.

Even those foreign students who do not participate in protests may need to worry about getting caught in the dragnet. Attorney General John Ashcroft recently announced a zero-tolerance policy for those who overstay their visas; previously, overstays were a low priority for INS enforcement officials, who focused on those who enter illegally. Slovinsky sees this shift as particularly troubling for students, who face an unusually complicated set of regulations. If they're in the country for more than 30 days, for example, they are required by law to notify the INS of any change of address within 10 days. "It's really easy to fall out of status," Slovinsky says. This kind of error, or even a clerical error committed by a student's university, could place the student out of status and make him, technically, eligible for deportation.

Zaki Wahhaj, a graduate student in economics at MIT, predicts another unintended consequence—a change in the type of student who comes here. Wahhaj says his perception of the United States as an open society, where even international students can expect to feel completely a part of the university, drew him here. Other students, he acknowledges, see U.S. universities as nothing more than a way into the U.S. job market. If the measures directed at foreign students grow stronger, Wahhaj says, "It's going to make the first group of students less likely to apply. If you feel that you're under suspicion, then it changes the whole experience."

Perhaps this altered perception of the United States is a more accurate one. Legislation passed in response to terrorism—in 1978, 1996, and 2001—has steadily eroded the constitutional protections that were strengthened by the Supreme Court under Earl Warren in the 1960s. Mark, of AALDEF, sees the shifts in policy toward foreign students as a bellwether for the rest of us: "Everybody's rights are so intimately connected."


Related story:
"Case Clothed: Middle Eastern Students Decide What to Wear After 9-11" by Angela Starita

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