Student visa tracking met with criticisms

By Matthew Levitt

Uncertainty over new policies for tracking foreign students has raised concern in the international community since September 11. The results of President Bush’s move to revamp a computer network used to track foreign students are slowly beginning to be felt, and some at the University expect chafing from a new surveillance system and heightened reporting procedures.

Harvey Stein, acting director of the Office of International Affairs, voiced concern over what he called “excessive focus” on foreign students after the attacks. “Of all the foreigners that come to the U.S., two percent are students,” he said, “and only one of the nineteen terrorists on September 11 came in on a student visa, and yet we crack down on students.”

While surveillance of foreign students is not new, per se, the specific countries that schools are expected to scrutinize are. Traditionally, the University was required to monitor students from China and the U.S.S.R. more carefully.

Now, the latest orders from the State Department require more closely monitoring students from two lists: one has six countries that are considered a high security threat including Cuba, North Korea, Iraq, and Iran. The other includes over twenty countries considered a more moderate threat, most of which are in the Middle East. According to Stein, background checks may have to be extended to at least some male students from nations on the latter list, although it is not yet clear to what extent.

Foreign students at the University of Chicago hail from over 90 countries, some of which are countries on the State Department’s security threat list. Of the countries on the list, Turkey and Pakistan send the most students: 45 and 26 respectively. It is still too early to see the impact of new policies on foreign student enrollment, but the effect is thought to be negligible. “Students entering in the fall should have documents in June, and then have all of July and August to make peace with the State Department,” said Stein.

The new stipulations placed on schools and foreign students are not without critics. The computer tracking network was originally ordered by Congress in 1995, but seven years later, despite the impetus of a post-September 11 budget increase and attention by lawmakers, a functioning system that can keep track of all the students is still at least a year off, according to a January 28 article in The NewYork Times.

Recent legislation still fails to specify how new laws are to be carried out. “Every time a student drops below full-time, we’re supposed to let [Immigration and Naturalization Services] know,” Stein said. “But a yearly report? An account twenty minutes after it happens? They just have not said what they want.”

The effects of recent events and legislation aren’t being felt as much at the University as at many public universities, according to third year Samia Khan, who is from Pakistan. She mentioned several instances of Pakistani friends at other universities being interrogated by the F.B.I. and being forced to report their whereabouts.

“Although it doesn’t seem that unfair in theory, it’s a total obstruction of civil liberties,” Khan said.

Others concur. “This type of ‘reporting’ undermines, in my opinion, the network of support and safety that the Office of International Affairs has been so wonderful in sustaining,” said Andrea Scott, a resident head in Max Palevsky.

Although she is American, Scott has had plenty of experience dealing with Immigration. Her husband, who is Iranian, is a student at the University of Munich. He applied for a U.S. permanent resident visa months ago that has not yet been granted. “This process has taken a few months longer than usual, but this could be due to any number of factors,” Scott said.

In the meantime, she has been shuttling from Chicago to Munich to visit her husband.