One of the 19 terrorists identified in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon entered the United States on a student visa. Hani Hanjour never showed up at the language school in Oakland; instead, he helped hijack a plane.
Hani Hanjour was not your typical foreign student.
Thirty-one million people come to the United States every year on visas (50,000 on so-called “lottery visas” awarded to random applicants). A little more than half a million of these people come to America on student visas. To come here, they undergo a lengthy application process at the U.S. embassies in their home countries and they pay high enrollment fees.
Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) has proposed a bill that would, in part, make the lives of foreign students more difficult. It would also require background checks before students are granted visas.
Background checks, as practiced for citizenship, require the applicant to fill out a form and disclose whether or not they are a Nazi war criminal (no admitted Nazi war criminals have been granted citizenship since they started lying on this question).
Asking students if they are terrorists will not help either. No one fills out a student visa application with, “I would like to study engineering at the California Polytechnic Institute and blow up the White House when it is full of kindergartners,” even if that’s the truth.
Feinstein’s bill would also require schools to report to the Immigration and Naturalization Services on a quarterly basis with students’ courses, grades and disciplinary record.
So far there is almost no link between a failing (or passing) grade in organic chemistry and ruthless terrorism. The intention is, of course, not to check up on grades but to track students. Checking up on people at three-month intervals does not prevent them from hopping in a car, bus, train or plane and disappearing on a day’s notice – one of the side effects of living in a free society.
Anyone on a visa can already be held indefinitely by the INS. The INS does not have this power except in times of crisis and although this certainly is one, the INS did not have to invoke any new authority. The INS declared a crisis in the 1950s, during McCarthyism, and never bothered to un-declare it.
Actions like these make the U.S. student visa process despised in other countries. Making the process more difficult, while not a deterrent to terrorists, might cause other nations to enact harsh visa policies in retaliation. It might also lead to fewer foreign students coming to America – bad news for poor people. Foreign students attending the University of California pay about $20,000 per year in tuition, effectively subsidizing scholarships for low-income Californians.
There is, however, one good thing about Feinstein’s bill: It would fund a much needed computer system for the INS – a computer system they are already required by law to have but were never given the funding for. While millions upon millions are poured into policing America’s southern border, there are scarce funds for legal immigration and visa monitoring. If Hani Hanjour’s visa had been properly monitored, he would have caught the attention of law enforcement.
While most of Feinstein’s bill will make the lives of foreign students worse for little more purpose than making Americans feel safe, properly funding the INS will help everyone.