2 Senators Propose Barring Student Visas for People From Countries Deemed Terrorist Threats
The Chronicle of Higher Education,
Monday, October 29, 2001
By SARA HEBEL
Two U.S. senators said Thursday that they would introduce legislation that would prevent the federal government from giving student visas to individuals from countries that the U.S. State Department considers to be sponsors of terrorism. College lobbyists have voiced concern about the prohibition, which is part of a broader measure to reform the U.S. visa system.
The countries on the department's terrorism list are Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. Senator Dianne
Feinstein, a California Democrat, said that, over the past 10 years, more than 16,000 students from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria have come to the United States on student visas.
Ms. Feinstein and Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, consider the process for granting visas to foreign students to be one of the most underregulated of the nation's visa systems. They have been working with college groups to propose changes that would allow the federal government and colleges to better screen applicants for the visas and to more closely monitor foreign students who do enter the country. In announcing their proposal, the senators noted that the U.S. Immigration and
Naturalization Service now says that as many as two of the suspected hijackers in the September 11 attacks on the United
States could have entered the country on student visas.
"September 11 pointed out clear shortcomings in our immigration and visa system," Senator Feinstein said. "Our nation's borders have become a sieve, creating ample opportunity for terrorists to enter and establish their operations without detection."
This fall, Ms. Feinstein proposed a six-month moratorium on all student visas, but she backed away from that plan after meeting with college groups that opposed it. Some of the college lobbyists who continue to meet with Ms. Feinstein and other lawmakers to discuss visa-reform efforts said Friday that they had not yet reviewed the details of the latest proposal. They said they were holding off on taking an official stance on the plan until they had more information.
Nevertheless, Becky Timmons, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, said that the group was "a little bit concerned" about some of the proposals set forth in the senators' plan, including the provision limiting student visas for people from countries on the State Department's terrorism list.
Historically, Ms. Timmons argued, American colleges "have done the nation a service" by introducing students from countries linked to terrorism to the American way of life and democratic principles. "We don't want to isolate these people because their governments are hostile to the United States," she said. "Otherwise, you're only sealing the fate of those countries to be permanently anti-U.S."
Ms. Timmons said officials at the American Council on Education also were reviewing whether some of the reporting requirements in the senators' proposal would be workable for colleges. For instance, the legislation would require colleges to "immediately" notify the immigration service when a foreign student violated the terms of a visa by not showing up for classes.
Another provision in the proposal by Ms. Feinstein and Mr. Kyl would require the immigration service to conduct a background check on every applicant for a student visa before the State Department could issue a visa. Some campus officials and foreign students have voiced concerns that such a requirement would bog down the process and would probably discourage some people from studying in the United States.
The American Council on Education, on behalf of dozens of higher-education groups, has offered its own set of proposals for altering the student-visa system. That plan includes special scrutiny, such as extensive background checks, for student-visa applicants from the countries on the State Department's watch list. It also would require colleges to report to the immigration service within 30 days after the start of an academic term if a foreign student did not appear on campus as expected.
Senators and higher-education groups have agreed that a key to the better tracking of individuals with student visas would be to create a new database on foreign students as soon as possible. In a 1996 law, Congress required the system to be put in place by 2003.
Meanwhile, college officials say they also are waiting to learn more about a visa-reform bill that Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, a
Massachusetts Democrat, and Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, have said they would propose. Some higher-education lobbyists said general descriptions of the legislation indicate that it could be more in line with the student-visa changes that the college groups have recommended.
Any visa-reform bill would have to move through the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, which Mr. Kennedy leads and on which Mr. Brownback is the top Republican. Senators Feinstein and Kyl are the top Democrat and Republican on another panel, the Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism, and Government Information.
In the House of Representatives, two subcommittees of the Education and the Workforce Committee plan a joint hearing on Wednesday to discuss options for improving the tracking of international students.
On another front, President Bush on Friday signed into law antiterrorism legislation that gives certain federal officials the power to view some private student records when investigating terrorism. College lobbyists said the law -- which is more limited than a plan the Bush administration itself had offered -- strikes a reasonable balance between students' rights to keep their academic records private and the federal government's need to track down terrorists.
The law will allow a designee of the U.S. attorney general who is employed at the level of assistant attorney general or above to view a student's records if a court certifies that the U.S. government had "specific and articulable facts" that led it to want to examine information about that student.
The law also will limit federal officials' use of the records to investigating and prosecuting terrorist crimes. And it will protect from legal liability any colleges and their employees who, in good faith, turn over student records under the new procedures.
The final version of the legislation also will exempt campus scientists who work with certain biological materials and toxic chemicals from a provision in the measure that makes the possession of such substances a crime. The Association of American
Universities and the American Society of Microbiology had lobbied for the exemption, worrying that the proposal could hinder legitimate research.