Immigration Fee to be Collected by Colleges

The Chronicle of Higher Education from the issue dated January 28, 2000

 

Proposed Federal Rule Tells Colleges to Collect Immigration Fee

 

Officials decry the change, saying it would hinder their relationship with foreign students

 

By SARA HEBEL

 

"Welcome to the United States. Get out your checkbook."

 

That's the opening line Jerry D. Wilcox fears the federal government will lead him to use as he greets students on campus. Mr. Wilcox is director of the office that assists international students and scholars at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

He and administrators at many other colleges are upset about a draft federal regulation, proposed last month by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, that would impose a new fee on international students and, for the first time, require colleges to collect a fee for the government.

 

"This is really an overwhelming task for us to even contemplate," says Mr. Wilcox, whose institution enrolled 3,984 international students on temporary visas last fall. "Saddling us with doing bookkeeping for the immigration service seems very  cumbersome, seems wrong-headed."

 

Forcing colleges to collect a new $95 fee from their foreign students, and then to forward it to the I.N.S., would be costly and inefficient, college officials argue. It would significantly blur the missions of the officials, who want to serve students, not act like

government agents, they say. Some students, too, are unhappy with the idea of paying the fee and feeling watched by "Big Brother."

 

"It is inappropriate and sets a dangerous precedent for higher education," says Marlene M. Johnson, executive director and C.E.O. of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

 

The I.N.S. proposal would put in place the new user fee, as required by a 1996 federal immigration law. The revenue would pay for an electronic tracking system designed to monitor international students and visitors in exchange programs who come to the United States on temporary visas. Campus officials and others have until mid-February to comment on the proposal.

 

Interest groups that represent institutions and international educators will urge the I.N.S. to rewrite the plan so that the agency, rather than colleges, collects the money. They also plan to suggest delaying the timetable for charging the fee, and finding ways to reduce costs and paperwork that campuses would face.

 

Before the I.N.S. issues its final regulation later this year, the agency says it will consider altering the proposal to try to alleviate some of the burden on colleges.

 

The I.N.S. estimates that the new fee -- if enacted as proposed -- would be charged to about 250,000 foreign students and scholars this fiscal year, which ends September 30, and would bring in $23.75-million. But Ms. Johnson said about 500,000 international students and scholars are now in the United States, and her group expects them to be required to pay the fee each year. The two groups said their numbers differ because they are counting students over different time periods.

 

The tracking system, meanwhile, is scheduled to be up and running in 2003. But the proposed rule would require that students who entered the United States after August 1, 1999, would have to pay the fee.

 

"The first round of people who are paying won't have any benefits, they'll just have hassles," says Kay A. Thomas, director of international students and scholar services at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, which has 3,150 foreign students.

 

College officials also say they anticipate problems trying to collect the fee retroactively. With international students coming and going to and from many countries, tracking down everyone who has been on campus since last August is "going to be a nightmare," argues Mr. Wilcox of the University of Texas.

 

Some of campus administrators' most significant beefs about the proposed rule revolve around its potential costs to colleges.

Mr. Wilcox calculates that his institution would have to pay about $10,000 to staff members for extra work in just the first few weeks that the fee is in place. He estimates that campus advisers would have to spend at least an extra 20 minutes with each of

about 900 new international students expected to enroll at the University of Texas in August and September. Campus employees would have to explain the fee, check over forms, take money, and answer questions.

 

Officials of the American Council on Education, a Washington lobbying group that represents most of the nation's colleges, estimate that collecting the proposed fee could take institutions even longer than Mr. Wilcox predicts. Administrators at 6,000

institutions and foreign-visitor programs may have to spend an average of one hour per student on fee-related activities.

 

Moreover, many college officials argue that the new system also may add hassles for the I.N.S. "I'm not at all sure this is the cheapest way for the federal government to handle it, with reports coming in harum-scarum from all sorts of places in all different forms," Mr. Wilcox says.

 

For students, meanwhile, complications could arise if a delay occurs between the time they pay the money and the college gets confirmation from the I.N.S. that the fee has been received.

 

Ms. Thomas, the Minnesota administrator, says the proposed rule makes it sound as if she could not provide basic services --such as approving requests to travel or to transfer to another academic program -- for international students until she received verification that they had paid their user fees.

 

That leads to college officials' broader concern: The collections would fundamentally alter, and diminish, their roles as educational assistants to students, they argue.

 

"This really does put us in a role of doing something on behalf of the government we haven't done before," says Judith A. Green, director of the international services office at George Washington University, where 2,306 foreign students enrolled this academic year. "It forces us to turn our attention away from our central mission, which is service to students, and toward performing a function that doesn't further that mission."

 

Gabriele Schmiegel, a 29-year-old German graduate student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, says forcing campus officials to do work for the I.N.S. would erode international students' confidence and trust in their institutions' employees.

 

Ms. Schmiegel, who has been in the United States on a student visa since 1996, works on campus as an international-student adviser, as part of her graduate work in education policy. She worries that the fee could place a significant financial burden on many students coming from impoverished countries. The database itself, she adds, makes her uneasy.

 

"This looks at us as if we are always doing something wrong, as if we are criminal," Ms. Schmiegel says. "It treats us as if we are kind of unwanted and a burden. We are not. International education offers a two-way exchange."

 

Many campus officials say they worry that the new database, and its fee, could hinder the efforts of colleges in the United States to recruit foreign students. In addition, some say they fear that the fee and the database it supports may indicate that colleges and universities will have to begin shouldering more legal responsibility if international students violate U.S. immigration laws.

 

However, most college lobbyists and campus administrators say they plan to focus their fight on the fee collections and not on the creation of the tracking system; those who oppose its goals say they are simply resigned, for now, to the idea that it will eventually be put in place.

 

Some lawmakers who support the database argue that the new tracking system would help students and colleges. They say it could make it easier for international students to track their visa status and to get information from government agencies. The database also could help colleges keep better records of their international students, supporters argue.

 

Congressional staff members who also favor the database, and the fee to pay for it, say it is needed because federal officials now have no way to track people who enter the United States on student visas. Creating a way to monitor those individuals is especially important as U.S. officials work to limit the nation's vulnerability to terrorist acts, they say.

 

"It is becoming increasingly problematic that terrorists are posing as students, and are using their student access to get technology and other information useful to them," says Allen Kay, a spokesman for Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who heads the House immigration subcommittee.

 

For instance, Congressional aides note that the man convicted of driving the bomb-laden van that blew up in 1993 under the World Trade Center, in New York City, had entered the United States in 1989 on a student visa. Eyad Ismoil, who was born in Kuwait and attended high school in Jordan, enrolled at Wichita State University but dropped out in December 1990. He then stayed and worked in the United States, in violation of his student visa.

 

Without a nationwide system to track international students, federal immigration officials were not made aware of Mr. Ismoil's illegal stay in the United States until after the bombing.

 

Beyond the Trade Center example, Congressional aides point mostly to possibilities of increased terrorism. Government officials are beginning to focus more attention on identifying weak links in national security, and a growing number of international students entering the United States -- without comprehensive data on who they are or where they go -- is one area that concerns them.

 

Mr. Wilcox says more protections make sense. But, "My gosh, how complex do you really want to make this?" he asked. "And, how expensive do you want to make it for Texas taxpayers?" They arguably would have to foot the bill for extra operating expenses the public college incurs, he noted.

 

Mr. Wilcox advocates that the I.N.S. set up a World Wide Web site where students could enter and track fee payments --which they could make through a wire transaction, credit card, or check. A receipt could then be generated, perhaps electronically, and sent immediately to the university.

 

Bank One has approached the I.N.S. about providing that type of a system to collect the fee, as well as other fees for which the agency is responsible. I.N.S. officials said they will consider the company's proposal as one approach to respond to colleges' concerns about fee-collection.

 

"We do have some leeway in how we can do it, but not a lot," an I.N.S. spokeswoman, Eyleen M. Schmidt, says of how the agency requires collections. "Somehow the university has to be involved."

 

Language that Congress included in the 1996 immigration law specifies that institutions must collect the fees. Once the regulatory process is complete, therefore, college officials may have to take their fight to Capitol Hill. Aides there said that they would take a look at institutions' concerns once the I.N.S. issues final regulations. Some Congressional staff members said, however, they expected that an approach such as the Bank One idea is likely to be adopted.

 

Mr. Kay says his boss, Representative Smith, "is sympathetic to colleges' concerns and wants to make this as easy of a process as possible." He added: "The universities have come up with some good ideas, and a more streamlined system is going to get better reporting."