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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 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.
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.”