Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein proposed a six month moratorium on all student visas. The New York Times reported on Nov. 12 that federal investigators have already contacted over 200 college campuses to collect information regarding students from Middle Eastern countries since Sept. 11. Once again, government officials are taking advantage of the current climate of fear in the U.S. to abuse individual freedoms in the name of fighting terrorism.
Both Feinstein”s proposal and the federal inquiries are reactions to the fact that one of the eighteen terrorists who flew the airplanes on Sept. 11 entered the country on a student visa. But they ignore that the other seventeen terrorists entered the U.S. through other legal means like tourism or business visas and that international students obtained fewer than 2 percent of the 31 million visas issued in 1999. If the federal government wants to change the visa system, changes should affect all visa recipients, not just students.
Meanwhile, federal investigators have already requested information from universities about what Middle Eastern students are studying, whether they are performing well and where they are living. Students themselves have been questioned about their views on Osama bin Laden and the names of their favorite restaurants. Feinstein”s proposal would call for $32 million in funding to institute a computer tracking system that monitors foreign students.
Tracking Middle Eastern students suggests that there is a legitimate reason to be suspicious of them. It smacks of overt racial profiling and an invasion of privacy. Why punish all international students for the crimes of one?
Parts of Feinstein”s proposal include periodic checks on enrollment status and added preliminary applications and background checks by the INS. A few legitimate changes to student visa policy like increasing the number of consular officials in U.S. embassies abroad who interview and review backgrounds before student visas are given out are understandable. Currently, officials often spend only minutes interviewing candidates.
One cannot underestimate the role of international students in the U.S. They provide a significant amount of research and brainpower for U.S. universities. They are some of the best students in the world. They also contribute valuable diversity and dialogue to the schools they attend, not to mention the roughly $12 billion they pump into the U.S. economy annually.
Student visas are issued with explicit agreements to return home after their schooling is completed. When they do, international students take with them a better understanding of the workings of U.S. democratic ideals and openness to change, promoting peace and goodwill in the future.
Feinstein”s moratorium and the inquiries made by federal investigators only serve to continue the attack on personal freedoms that the likes of John Ashcroft have mounted since Sept. 11. The chances of actually rooting out a supposed terrorist are next to nothing. Instead of protecting us, they in fact harm our universities, scrutinize Arab students and damage international relations and cultural exchange.