The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Fighting terrorism is like being a goalkeeper.  You can make a hundred brilliant saves but the only shot that people remember is the one that gets past you." ....Paul Wilkinson

Commentary of the Day - November 7, 2001:  Student Visas and National Security.

In the wake of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon the process for issuing student visas has come under close scrutiny.  It is believed that two of the terrorists involved in the attacks had entered the United States on student visas.  Senator Dianne Feinstein (D. California) initially called for a six-month moratorium on the issuance of new student visas, and President Bush has ordered his administration to conduct a thorough review of the student visa situation.  Feinstein appears to be backing away from her initial position, and the results of the Bush administration review have not been announced yet.

However, concern remains high on both sides of this issue.  College and university administrators generally continue to favor a visa process that places essentially no burden on the applicant to demonstrate that he or she represents no threat to the security of the United States.  On the other side many legislators and government officials think that the student visa process represents another weak link in our defenses against terrorism.

Foreign students comprise an important segment of the student population in American higher education.  Administrators favor the admission of relatively large numbers of international students for a number of understandable reasons.  At the undergraduate level they almost always receive no financial aid.  Thus at private institutions they pay full tuition either out of their own pocket or with help from their own governments.  At public colleges and universities these students almost always pay the much higher nonresident tuition rate, so each one contributes substantially to the institution's bottom line.  And, without a doubt, at the undergraduate level international students help to broaden the educational experience of all students.

At the graduate level, foreign students often are essential for the survival of many masters and doctoral programs.  This is particularly true for Ph.D. programs in engineering, science, and mathematics.  Financial assistance is more readily available for international students at the graduate level.  However, this aid usually is in the form of tuition waivers and teaching assistantships.  Thus, in return for his or her education the foreign graduate student becomes a source of low-cost instruction for undergraduates.

The process for issuing student visas in the past has been geared to these realities.  College and university international student offices have been concerned primarily with financial issues.  They wanted to ensure that the student had enough money to pay the bills.  They became very good at checking bank balances of both the applicant and the applicant's sponsors, along with the applicant's academic credentials.  Once an applicant had satisfied the institution that he or she met the academic requirements for admission and had sufficient wherewithal to meet the financial requirements, the student would be issued an I-20 form and a letter of admission.  With these documents in hand, the student would pay a visit to the nearest American consular office or embassy.  Consular staff then would issue the requisite student visa, often with only a very cursory check on the background of the applicant.

For the most part this system has worked well.  The vast majority of international students come to the United States to gain an education that is largely unavailable in their home country.  They appreciate the opportunity afforded them, and they represent no threat to the security of the United States.  The only major drawback of these programs that received much attention was that many of these international students eventually become permanent residents of the United States.  From our point-of-view this often was a benefit because these people brought critical skills to our industries.  However, this "brain drain" often had negative effects on their home countries.

We now recognize that another major flaw in the student visa system is that does not address the security issue.  While it is true that the vast majority of individuals who hold student visas are honest and law-abiding, the few who are not can cause immense harm.  Colleges and universities do not have the resources  or inclination to check on the character and background of foreign applicants, and too often U.S. consular offices and embassies abroad have not carried out careful background checks on student visa applicants.

A better system is needed.  The IP suggests that it start with a centralized screening system for all applicants for student and training visas.  Under such a system an applicant would first apply to the U.S. consular office or embassy for permission to attend college, university, or training programs in the United States.  The application would be checked against local information and transmitted to the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the United States for checks against all the various databases maintained by federal law enforcement agencies.  Once the applicant passes the security check he or she would be issued a permit to apply to programs in the United States, and would have his or her name and other information entered in a central database.

Only when the permit to apply has been issued would the student be able to apply to programs in the United States.  Decisions on admission would be made as usual except that the college or university would be required to (1) check the central database to ensure that the student was eligible to apply, and (2) to add information to the database indicating that the the student had applied to the particular institution and had either been accepted or turned down.  The I-20 form then would be issued and the student's local consular office or embassy would issue the F-1 visa.

The college or university then would be required to inform the INS of the student's status at the institution on a regular basis.  This would allow the INS to track individuals who obtain student visas but who never show up for classes, or who drop out of school shortly after arriving in the U.S.

If these suggestions are adopted they would add time and perhaps cost to the admissions process, which is unfortunate.  But, students learn to adjust quickly.  They soon will learn to start the application process earlier to compensate for the extra time needed for security checks.  And,  even though no security system is entirely foolproof, by closing the most gaping holes in our visa systems, we make life more difficult for those who wish us ill.

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.