Senate Committee's Compromise Bill on Student Visas Adds Flexibility Sought by College Groups

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Monday, December 3, 2001

By SARA HEBEL

 

Washington

 

Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced compromise legislation on Friday that would place new restrictions on the issuance of some student visas and would require colleges and federal officials to more closely track the movements of foreign students in the United States.

 

College lobbyists praised the bill, which they said provides important flexibility on student visas that was not contained in other plans that senators have proposed since September 11. In addition, the lobbyists said the new legislation would tighten the visa system in ways that would help improve the nation's security.

 

"I think it's a very good compromise, and we're pleased," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.

 

Congressional aides and higher-education lobbyists said Friday that it remained unclear, however, whether the Senate Judiciary Committee or the full Senate would schedule a vote on the visa-reform bill this year. The debate may have to wait until next year, as members of Congress frantically work to finish appropriations legislation and other key bills before adjourning for the holidays.

 

The senators' visa legislation would generally prohibit the federal government from issuing student visas to individuals from countries that the U.S. State Department considers to be sponsors of terrorism. Those countries are Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya,

North Korea, Sudan, and Syria.

 

However, the bill would allow some individual applicants to be exempted from that restriction if the U.S. secretary of state, in consultation with the U.S. attorney general, determines that they pose no safety or security threat to the United States.

 

Higher-education lobbyists were happy that the measure would provide the exception. They had voiced concerns about a previous plan -- by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, who have signed on to the compromise version -- that did not allow any flexibility for students from countries on the State Department list. Keeping such individuals off American campuses might only harden anti-American sentiments in those countries, the lobbyists argued.

 

In the 1999-2000 academic year, a total of 3,370 students from those seven countries attended American colleges, according to the Institute of International Education. Of those countries, Iran sent the most students, with a total of 1,885 that year.

 

Other provisions in the compromise legislation contain new requirements for colleges and federal officials to track the activities of foreign students in the United States. Under the bill, the Justice Department would be required to notify college officials when a student who was expected to attend their institution entered the United States. College officials then would have to notify the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service if a student who entered the country did not show up on campus within 30 days after the deadline for registering for classes.

 

If the bill is enacted, colleges also would have to report more information about foreign students to the immigration service. That includes the student's date of entry, port of entry, date of enrollment, date of graduation or date of dropping out of the college, and degree program or field of study.

 

In addition, the legislation would set up temporary procedures to provide added scrutiny of foreign students while the immigration service puts in place the new safeguards, including a database to monitor foreign students that is supposed to be up and running by 2003. Under the interim rules, State Department officials would be required to obtain evidence that a student had been accepted to an approved academic institution in the United States and to review that person's visa record before the department could issue a student visa.

 

Finally, the INS would have to periodically review educational institutions to make sure they comply with the record-keeping and reporting requirements of the law. State Department officials would have to conduct similar reviews of exchange visitor programs.

 

Among those who expressed support for the bill on Friday were officials of the University of California, which has 9,000 foreign students in undergraduate and graduate programs and about 23,000 more in extension programs. University officials have been negotiating with Senator Feinstein on student-visa issues for several weeks. "The University of California is happy that the senators have developed compromise legislative language that reflects efforts made by the University of California and the higher-education community, with the senators, to strengthen the student-visa system," said Chris Harrington, a spokesman for the university's Washington office.

 

Mr. Hartle, of the American Council on Education, said the only problem he had with the bill was that it failed to confront an important issue to colleges: who will pay for the immigration service's new computerized system to monitor students. College officials want the federal government to pay for developing and operating the database. But some senators, including Ms. Feinstein and Mr. Kyl, have said they expect foreign students to help finance it.

 

 

Copyright 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education