Crisis Ethics

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

The last time Mandar Oak, a graduate student in economics at Cornell, went home to India, he brought the usual gifts and stories, plus one observation about life in the United States: He noticed that most U.S. cities and towns have direct elections for local leaders, such as sheriff and county clerk, rather than political appointments. "I kind of thought, 'This is cool,' " Oak says. "And I told them, 'You should have more direct elections.' "

In a small way, his offhand comment fulfills the role the U.S. government has always hoped foreign students would play. "Our student visa policy is based on the democratic values of an open society," said Mary Ryan, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, in congressional testimony given on October 31. "A U.S. education plays an invaluable role in spreading American values overseas."

But these days, student visa policy is being influenced less by "democratic values" than by the actions of one person, Hani Hanjour. He used a student visa to enter the United States last year, failed to show up for his classes at a language institute in California, and on September 11 piloted a plane full of people into the Pentagon. Since then, U.S. policy toward foreign students, now numbering more than 600,000, has been pervaded by a sense of suspicion, a shift most clearly evident in the renewed push to single out foreign students for comprehensive, computerized monitoring.

After four years of fighting this proposal, its most vocal critic effectively reversed its position. NAFSA: Association of International Educators, the country's largest organization of university officials who deal with foreign students, issued this statement on September 20: "We have disagreed strongly with the assumption that foreign students, one of the smallest categories of non-immigrant visitors and already among the most closely monitored, should be singled out for special tracking. We have not abandoned this position. However, if the United States Congress can cease debate on the many divisive issues that consumed it before September 11, surely no less can be expected of us. The time for debate is over, and the time to devise a considered response to terrorism has arrived." Says NAFSA spokesperson Ursula Oaks: "This tracking system has a part to play; we are not going to stand in the way."

The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) is expected to be in place nationwide by the end of the year. "Objections, primarily by the academic establishment, have delayed its development and deployment," said Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner James Ziglar. "However, with the events of September 11, that objection has virtually disappeared." Students and educators expect that the additional monitoring will have little impact on the number of foreign students applying for visas to study in the United States; the appeal of an American degree is still too strong. The more profound impact may be felt elsewhere, in a further erosion of civil liberties and in the perception of America abroad.

Even if the events of September 11 had never taken place, it's likely that SEVIS would have been implemented in some form—the INS was mandated by the 1996 overhaul of federal immigration law to make information about foreign students available via the Web to the INS and other federal officials. NAFSA and other lobbying groups had succeeded only in delaying its implementation until December 2003 and in securing some concessions, such as a provision to have consular officials collect fees to pay for the program, rather than turning the universities into federal bill-collectors.

But the terms of the debate have changed. Discussion of the risks that foreign students pose (only 2 percent of all non-immigrant visitors to the United States carry student visas, and only two, including Hanjour, are suspected of ever having committed a terrorist act) relative to their merits is over. Instead, the regulations governing student visas have become another tool of law enforcement. Student visa-holders include a large proportion of young men in what they consider the target age group, and universities provide a convenient institutional structure for collecting information about them. "Because we collect and keep so much data, the federal government has more extensive information available to it about international student and exchange visitors than it does about any other class of visa recipient," says David Ward, president of the American Council on Education. Claudia Slovinsky, an immigration attorney representing several people detained since September 11, argues that efforts like SEVIS, which cast a wide net among people who are not even suspected of any wrongdoing, act as "a substitute for good investigative work. You end up doing national racial profiling."

In its most basic form, SEVIS simply organizes data that the federal government already requires universities to collect. Stan Mark, staff attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, does not dispute the government's right to check for visa violations. This much is already happening. As part of their visa agreements, students must provide information such as their address, field of study, and enrollment status, and universities supply this information to the INS on demand. "In some cases we are asked to provide information about a single student, and in other cases we may be asked to supply information on a broader group of students—for example, all those who are studying chemistry," Ward says. What concerns civil liberties advocates is that SEVIS would make it so easy to take this a step further, using the database to identify groups of people based on their nationality or ethnic background and question them, even if they are in the country legally and are not suspected of any wrongdoing. "They shouldn't have that power," Mark says. "There will be abuse."

"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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