Lawmakers Debate Restrictions on Student Visas
Legislation under discussion on Capitol Hill would make it harder for foreign students to enroll in U.S. colleges and universities.
“The foreign student visa program is one of the most unregulated and exploited visa categories,” says Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., one of the program’s staunchest critics since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. According to Feinstein, one of the terrorists on the plane that slammed into the Pentagon had enrolled at a California college in fall 2000 but never showed up.
To address such problems, Feinstein first proposed a six-month moratorium on all student visas. After college organizations expressed strong opposition to that plan, the senator scaled back her plan but still favors a number of changes that would mean more accountability for colleges and more potential roadblocks for some foreign students.
Her new proposal calls for many changes in the structure of the visa program, including a requirement for extensive background checks on students before the government approves visas. That proposal could cause delays for students coming to the United States, educators say.
In addition, under the Feinstein plan, foreign students would have to submit their visa applications to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) before the U.S. Department of State can issue visas. Another provision would require colleges to report quarterly on a foreign student’s academic status, courses taken, date of visa expiration and disciplinary action taken against a student for any crime.
The Bush administration also has new interest in the issue. The president in late October created a cabinet-level task force to review the foreign student visa system. This panel also may make far-reaching proposals to change the system.
With the increased attention from lawmakers — and to get in front of this potentially volatile issue — college leaders are proposing their own ideas to improve the system. In many cases, these proposals fall short of Feinstein’s ideas.
“We’re concerned about any move that would lengthen the (visa) process,” says Jim Hermes, legislative associate at the American Association of Community Colleges. Community colleges enroll about 20 percent of foreign students, he says, with most of the remainder attending four-year colleges and universities.
The higher education plan, proposed by the American Council on Education, would impose a 30-day delay in processing visas for students from countries on the State Department’s watch list for support of terrorist organizations. U.S. consular officials also would conduct more extensive background checks on student visa applicants from these nations.
For higher education administrators, the plan calls for colleges to report to the INS within 30 days about any foreign student who was expected at the institution but who has not appeared for classes.
In congressional testimony and its reform plan, ACE is emphasizing the importance of retaining the visa system.
“If we wish to increase international understanding, we ought to increase the opportunities for students from other countries to study in the United States,” says Dr. David Ward, ACE president. However, he and others acknowledge that security is a top priority requiring cooperation and vigilance from the federal government and colleges.
Aside from the prospect of visa delays, another major issue for colleges is operation of the proposed Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), an electronic tracking system on foreign students. Once operational, the system will enable colleges to notify the INS about changes in a student’s visa status and address.
But funding for the system is a thorny issue. The INS wants foreign students to pay for the system through fees, something colleges say is unwieldy. Under a fee system, one option was to have colleges collect the fees, a plan opposed by educators. Colleges should not serve as “bill collectors for the federal government,” Ward says.
Under the ACE plan, the federal government would provide permanent funding for the new electronic tracking system.
Dozens of organizations have signed on to the ACE proposal, including the Council for Opportunity in Education and the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.
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