Senator Backs Away From Plan for Moratorium on Student Visas

Senator Backs Away From Plan for Moratorium on Student Visas

The Chronicle of Higher Education

October 19, 2001







Sen. Dianne Feinstein has backed away from her call to suspend foreign-student visas for six months, saying that a moratorium would not be needed if educators worked with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to better monitor the status of foreign students at their institutions.


While higher-education groups applauded her announcement this month, they noted that attention was already turning to broader legislative efforts, begun this month, to change the visa system.


Ms. Feinstein, a California Democrat, called for the moratorium last month after it was reported that one of the suspected hijackers in the September 11 terrorist attacks had entered the United States on a student visa. The suspect, Hani Hanjour, never showed up for classes at an English-as-a-second-language program in Oakland, Calif., owned by Berlitz International.


The senator had envisioned the moratorium as lasting for six months, enough time for the INS to put in place a computerized tracking system that would make readily accessible to law-enforcement officials the names, residences, and educational status of foreign students in the United States.


But higher-education groups objected that the moratorium was unnecessarily restrictive, would impose undue costs on institutions and students, and would greatly disrupt research programs and academic life. Representatives of California universities and higher-education groups voiced those concerns at a meeting with Ms. Feinstein this month.


A few days later, she announced that the higher-education officials and the INS had reassured her that there were other ways to reduce the security risk posed by foreign students living in the United States. She said the suspension of visas would not be required.


The American Council on Education and 18 other higher-education groups had proposed several new duties for colleges and the INS in a letter delivered to Senator Feinstein. Among the proposals were requirements for institutions to inform the federal agency within 30 days of the start of an academic term about the failure of any foreign student to appear for classes, and for the INS to notify colleges when a foreign student entered the country presenting forms supplied by those institutions.


Ms. Feinstein was scheduled to hold hearings late last week on visa issues in the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism, and Government Information, which she heads.


College groups reaffirmed their support for the INS's planned computerized monitoring system, as long as the federal government committed funds to its operation. Senator Feinstein's proposal would provide $32.3-million to finance the INS database.


The database, which is expected to be ready to use nationwide by 2003, will operate on an experimental basis at 10 Boston-area colleges beginning this month. It will be financed by a one-time $95 fee paid by first-year foreign students nationwide. In the 1999-2000 academic year, American colleges enrolled 514,723 foreign students, according to the Institute of International Education.


Before September 11, higher-education groups had criticized the database on the grounds that it would be burdensome for institutions and would discourage students from coming to the United States by singling them out for extra surveillance and making them pay for it to boot. The groups supported legislation introduced this year to dismantle the system altogether. After the terrorist attacks, however, even the system's most vocal opponent, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, joined

in supporting it.


At the same time, officials of higher-education groups have begun to point out that systemwide changes in the visa-granting process are needed to combat terrorism. Foreign students make up only a small percentage of the total number of visas granted each year, and they generally have a greater stake in coming to the United States than other immigrants do, said Becky Timmons, ACE's director of government relations.


"There's been a false impression in the press about the risk posed by student visas," said Ms. Timmons. "There is a much bigger problem here that can only be dealt with by tightening up the whole visa-awarding and monitoring process."


College groups are also looking with interest at legislative efforts advancing in the Senate and the House of Representatives.


Sen. Christopher S. Bond, a Missouri Republican, has introduced a bill that seeks to use background checks, a computerized tracking system, and tighter monitoring of student visas to better guard against terrorist threats. Sen. Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota, and Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine, are cosponsors.


Mr. Bond says his proposal deals specifically with loopholes in the visa system that were exploited by the suspected hijackers in the September 11 attacks. He will seek about $500-million to carry out the plan, an aide said.


Some of that money could go to financing the INS's student-tracking database. How much would go to that system will be something ACE will want to know before deciding whether to endorse the bill, Ms. Timmons said. But the legislation "looked promising," she said.


ACE's president, David Ward, suggested that Ms. Feinstein and Mr. Bond should explore combining their legislation. In its letter to Senator Feinstein, the council expressed its support for developing tamperproof visas and establishing a 30-day wait for any visas granted to individuals from nations suspected of sponsoring terrorism -- all facets of Senator Bond's bill.


In the House of Representatives, some members are seeking to reform or speed up the creation of a tracking system for foreign students by amending the anti-terrorism legislation, sponsored by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican. The House Judiciary Committee this month approved an amendment to the bill that would move up the date by which the INS's tracking system must be up and running nationally. The amendment, by Rep. Anthony D. Weiner, a New York Democrat, would require the system to be in operation next year instead of in 2003. It also would allow the attorney general to increase the fee paid by students to get the system working earlier, a provision education lobbyists oppose.


The bill was expected to be debated on the House floor late last week, and some members planned to offer more amendments on tracking foreign students.



Copyright 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education