California Senator Dianne Feinstein announced Tuesday that she would hold off on a proposal to place a moratorium on international student visas but will continue her push for a $32.3 million appropriations package to implement an electronic tracking system of international students.
The September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon prompted Feinstein to consider a bill killing student visas for six months and putting an electronic tracking system in place under the direction of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In a news release Tuesday, Feinstein said university opposition led her to back down from the moratorium, but that she still hoped President George W. Bush would allocate money from his $20 billion emergency supplemental appropriations package to pay for the tracking system.
“Today, there is little scrutiny given to those who claim to be foreign students seeking to study in the United States,” Feinstein said in the release. “In fact, the foreign student visa program is one of the most unregulated and exploited visa categories. While I will be working to clean up the student visa program, I pulled back on the moratorium for now because the schools have assured me that they will help to reform this program.”
On October 2, representatives of the University of California, among other institutions of higher education, met with Feinstein to discuss her proposals, said Chris Herrington, a UC communications representative based in Washington, D.C.
“The senator was very open to the concerns of the UC,” he said. “Our initial concerns were with the six-month moratorium and how it would affect students entering the U.S. to study in the UC institutions. We felt that Senator Feinstein was open to concerns and suggestions about alternatives to the moratorium.”
Alternatives to the moratorium on student visas included having institutions of higher learning, such as UC schools, supply additional information to the INS, Herrington said. This could be facilitated by the implementation of the electronic international foreign student tracking system.
“The UC recognizes that the senator wants action on this issue, as does the University, as far as implementing a system,” he said.
Since the Bush administration officials spoke earlier of imposing a fee of $95 on international students to fund the tracking system, the UC was glad to see that Feinstein’s recent proposal included government appropriations to fully fund the system, Herrington said.
The proposed tracking system would be used to fully integrate data on foreign students so all information can be accessed at any place and time, whereas the current system has much of the data spread out across academic institutions and various governmental agencies.
“This tracking system was mandated in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996,” Feinstein wrote in her letter to President Bush on the need for funding for the electronic data system. “Several representatives of higher education institutions with whom I have met have indicated their willingness to provide the necessary information to the INS about the students who are enrolled on their campuses.”
Only two percent of visas issued each year are student visas, said Mary Jacob, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars. “If you’re going to track people, you shouldn’t single out just students, but anybody who comes to the country,” she said.
Some international students feel that a tracking system that only monitored foreign students would be an infringement of their rights, even though those who it would track are not American citizens and do not have equal rights under the Constitution.
“I understand the demand to better control who is immigrating and what they are doing, but I feel that general monitoring would be very unfair towards international students,” said international graduate student Christian Schmidt, who is in the electrical and computer engineering departments at UCSB. “My general feeling is that in the U.S., people are less critical of data privacy issues. Is it really ok to constantly monitor every individual or are we approaching a totalitarian system?”
Federal agencies have requested lists of international students who were under investigation from higher education institutions, although Jacobs said these inquiries have been “very few and sporadic” across the nation.
“It is difficult to balance the needs of national security and international student rights to privacy,” UCSB International Programs Director Nancy Overholt said. “Clearly our international students are important to our campus and our country, and we must protect their rights to the degree that it is possible.”
“[International students] provide a fundamental diversity which is extremely important. It’s really critical to keep our doors open to show to the world that diversity of opinion is what we advocate and what we practice,” she said.
The Office of International Students and Scholars has compiled a resource page for international students, briefing them on their rights and responsibilities as foreign students.
Among the responsibilities of international students, they must enroll in a full-time course of study, keep a valid passport and I-94 card, and not engage in unauthorized employment – usually, anything off-campus.
International students have the right to remain silent if questioned by any police officer or government agent, the right to have a defense lawyer and the right to call their consulate.
“All of our students, including those who visit from other countries, should be afforded the rights and respect that we give all our students,” UCSB Ombuds Geoffrey Wallace said.
The National Lawyers Guild recently published a handout for international students that also presents tips on what rights they have in America, what to do if questioned by an agent and how to respond to threats. It is available at the Office of International Students and Scholars.
On October 3, USC law professor Niels Frenzen gave a lecture at UCSB entitled “Immigration Law and the September 11 Crisis.”
In his speech, Frenzen talked about the “absurd proposals” to strengthen “severe, draconian, powerful immigration laws” that are currently in effect in the country.
“How much stronger and how much more powerful can the immigration laws be?” he said. “I don’t know.”
The UC Office of the General Counsel designates one person on each UC campus to deal with any special agents who request student information. At UCSB, Registrar Beverly Lewis must hand over information to an agent with a subpoena but can use her discretion in any other situation.
“Student information is private with the exception that somebody is in danger,” Lewis said. “We are so careful with how we respond to this type of request. We screen very carefully – it would have to be connected to the terrorist event.”
The federally-funded electronic tracking system will help the INS, which, Jacob said, is currently very overworked and understaffed with “antiquated” computer systems, making it difficult to process all the visa applications it receives.
If people have tourist visas and want to exchange them for student visas, they have to wait up to a year sometimes in their own countries, Jacob said.
“This is the U.S. You’d think they’d be able to do things faster,” she said.
Some international students were fearful that Feinstein’s initial proposal of a six-month moratorium would come to pass.
“I believe that this moratorium – along with the scary possibility that you can be detained, picked out or refused re-entry – is seriously going to affect the international student’s mindset and is going to influence all the decisions he’s going to make, be it academic, career oriented or personal,” said international graduate student Vikram Khanna, who is in the material sciences department.
“I agree that certain actions should be taken to ensure international students are better managed. But I do not think it should violate international students’ freedom by such an extent,” electrical and computer graduate student Beitao Li said. “An analogy is that to avoid a computer virus, the simplest and the quickest but wrongest way is to just shut down all computers forever, or for six months.”