Concern For Limits on Student Visas

Recent legislative proposals to tighten immigration laws and student visa requirements have sparked concern in the world of higher education.

"Right now there are lots of unknown things about the legislation," said Steven Shaw, director of international admissions at UB. "However, if some of the proposals are passed, there may be a huge impact. Students may fear to come to the U.S. to study. These international students contribute a great deal to this school, not only economically but to the research of the school."

The increased scrutiny of foreign students comes after the FBI revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers implicated in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks obtained visitor's visas prior to entering the United States, and that at least one of the hijackers had an M-1 visa authorizing entrance into a vocational school.

"Our nation's borders have become a sieve, creating ample opportunity for terrorists to enter and establish their operations without detection," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate judiciary subcommittee on technology, terrorism and government information, in a Nov. 9 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The council is supporting efforts to tighten visa policies and allow the Immigration and Naturalization Services to keep track of and check the records of international or exchange students in colleges and universities nationwide.

The legislation will affect thousands of schools across the country, including UB, which enrolls approximately 2,860 international students.

A similar effort through the tracking system CIPRIS - the Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students - was proposed in 1996 as part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The system came as a response to allegations that one of the people responsible for the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 also entered the country on a visa, and would have collected information regarding course loads, faculty advisors and local and overseas addresses.

The database never progressed beyond a trial phase, as the system met with substantial resistance from universities, based largely on the proposed $95 fee that would have been charged first to institutions and later only to students.

Following Sept. 11, however, pressure to bring the system into full use led to the revision of CIPRIS into the Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).

"It is in our national interest, who is visiting here," said Shaw. "International students are not U.S. citizens, therefore they are not subject to the same laws," he continued. "The government may legally do this to insure security, but I still have some concerns on the moral and ethical aspects of it."

Feinstein and fellow senator Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., co-support a proposal to curtail the number of students entering the United States.

Their proposal would mandate a thorough background check on all students and non-citizens entering the country, prior to the issuance of visas by the State Department. Measures would also preclude awarding student visas to residents of Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria - all countries the State Department has earmarked as sponsors of terrorism.

Not everyone is happy with the closed-door policy gaining favor in American politics. In a statement released by the Institute of International Education, Allan Goodman, president and CEO of the organization, said he believes academic freedom is significant in creating a greater understanding between countries and cultures and that the organization will continue to press for legislation to minimize the detrimental effects on international students.

Ellen Doussard, director of international student and scholar services at UB, said the higher education community was somewhat ambivalent to the new proposals.

"We're concerned about the characterization of international students as terrorists," she said. "Only a handful of students are terrorists and there are many students [who] have become heads of states and become our coalition partners."

Some information in this article was taken from a Sept. 27 Chicago Tribune article, "US Educators Give in on Tracking Plan"; a Nov. 9 Chronicle of Higher Education article "Bush Urges Tighter Controls on Student Visas as Part of Crackdown on Terrorism," and an Oct. 7 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau article, "Delayed System Halted Efforts to Track Foreign Students."

Campus Editor Sara Paulson contributed to this report.