Wrangling Continues Over Student Visa Reforms
By Kristina Lane
Since Sept. 11, higher education officials and lawmakers have stepped up efforts to restructure the system that tracks foreign students — a system both groups have acknowledged is disorganized and outdated. But higher education officials say a persisting communication gap between the groups could hamper the success of the new system.
A recent letter to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service from the American Council on Education warns that poor communication among the INS, the U.S. State Department and higher education institutions could prevent the new system from being effective and in place by next January, the deadline set by Congress.
Written in collaboration with several higher education groups, including the American Association of Community Colleges, the letter makes several suggestions for implementing a computerized tracking system. One recommendation proposes separate deadlines for different stages of the implementation process, such as data entry and programming. Training programs should be set up to help campus administrators working with the new system, according to the letter. The letter also says the plan to charge foreign students for the system unfairly burdens them and delays the visa process by four weeks.
Congress ordered the system six years ago, after it was discovered that one of the terrorists involved in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center was in the United States on a student visa. Although the INS launched a pilot version of the system at several schools in 1997, higher education groups strongly opposed it, calling it an unnecessary expense for students and an invasion of their privacy.
The regulation of foreign students has again taken center stage partly because of Hani Hanjour, a native of Saudi Arabia who entered the United States on a student visa and whom authorities say steered the jetliner that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Hanjour never showed up for class at the California school where he was registered to study English as a Second Language, and the paper-based tracking system at the INS did not catch Hanjour’s absence from the school.
According to ACE, although a school is required to report an international student who doesn’t show up, it can take up to nine months for the INS to inform the school whether the student has entered the country.
Responding to the revelations about Hanjour, U.S. lawmakers earmarked $37 million for the computerized system and ordered it to be up and running by Jan. 1, 2003. The provisions were part of the Patriot Act of 2001, signed by President Bush in late October. The Patriot Act also expands the list of schools where foreign students are monitored, including flight, language and vocational schools, and allows government officials to obtain individual student records from colleges and universities if the records are relevant to a federal investigation of terrorist activity.
According to Bill Strassberger, an INS spokesman, the ACE letter demonstrates how higher education leaders have grown increasingly uncooperative with the movement to reform the flawed system.
“As we move further away from Sept. 11 … some memories are short. We haven’t forgotten, but I think there are those who have moved on to other issues as the primary concern,” Strassberger says. “If higher education doesn’t cooperate, that will be the single biggest roadblock to foreign students coming to the United States.”
Strassberger says colleges and universities should work to get the new system in place because it will help eliminate the stigma attached to foreign students since the September attacks.
“Since the terrorist attacks, international students have been unfairly targeted as being part of (terrorism),” he says. “Everyone should be concerned with the perception of international students in the United States, because everyone knows the majority are here to pursue studies, not to do anything negative.”
Jim Hermes, a legislative associate with the AACC who reviewed the ACE letter before it was sent, says it does not signal a lack of cooperation. He says it was intended to give higher education officials a more active role in developing the system.
“Higher education is serious about getting the system on track. We want to avoid a situation where the system develops and is presented to our institutions at the last minute,” Hermes says. “It needs to be a consultative process and that’s the only way it will really get done smoothly.”
Hermes says if the State Department, the INS and the schools don’t work together, he doubts the Jan. 1, 2003, deadline will be met.
Terry Hartle, vice president for government relations and public affairs at ACE, agreed the deadline would be missed if higher education isn’t a partner in forming the system. Hartle says higher education is not being uncooperative by voicing its concerns.
What concerns Hartle most are institutions such as community colleges, which don’t have as many financial resources as larger universities, or as much experience dealing with government regulations. He says he worries that these schools could be overwhelmed and ill-equipped to handle the new system when the deadline arrives.
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