President George W. Bush ’68 and members of Congress are working to make foreign student visa requirements and tracking stricter in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, raising concerns among many at Yale and elsewhere in higher education.
At the inaugural meeting of the Homeland Security Council Monday, Bush ordered Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft and other cabinet officials to review current student visa policies and institute tighter controls.
U.S. immigration officials have reported that two of the terrorist hijackers may have entered the country using student visas. Each year, 600,000 foreign students use the visas.
Members of Congress are also working to alleviate concerns about the visa system’s security.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., have proposed a temporary ban on visas for students from the seven countries which the State Department considers to be sponsors of terrorism. Those countries are Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.
It was not clear what significance the legislation would have at Yale.
“[There were] reports [Monday] of a couple of senators thinking of proposing some type of moratorium on issuing visas to people from countries known harboring terrorism,” said Richard Jacob, Yale associate vice president for federal relations. “What effect that would have on people seeking admission to Yale, whether that legislation is likely to move is not clear, the impact on us is not clear.”
Ann Kuhlman, director of Yale’s Office of International Students and Scholars, said that Yale does not currently have students from Cuba, Iraq, Libya, or North Korea. She could not confirm whether there are now students or scholars from Iran or Syria at Yale, although there have been in the past.
Jacob argued that limits on student visas might actually hurt national security.
“Over the long term, having international students in the country and having them exposed to the quintessential virtues of a liberal arts education, free inquiry exposure to democratic values — is a very good way of trying to prevent terrorism in the future,” Jacob said.
Sen. Feinstein retracted her earlier proposal for a complete moratorium on issuing student visas after the university community vigorously argued against it.
The president’s announcement and the proposed legislation come amid a flurry of activity regarding student visas. Even federal officials could not say exactly which measures will be adopted.
“We at the State Department and Bureau of Consular Affairs are working with a number of senate and house staffs, and members of both parties to see where the whole system might be improved to prevent another September 11 from happening again,” said Christopher Lamora, spokesman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department. “Right now, since no legislation has been passed, it’s really hard, if not impossible, to tell where everything’s going to shake out in the end.”
Last Friday, Bush signed a bill appropriating funding for the new Student and Exchange Visitor Program. SEVP provides technology to colleges to better communicate with the Immigration and Naturalization Service about entry, transfer, completion and work authorization of international students. The INS began working with congressmen to develop the program after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Kuhlman said SEVP has been tested at universities in the south and is slated to begin in 2003. She said students may eventually have to pay a fee to cover the costs.
“I don’t think this will impact the lives of students in any appreciable way, as it’s written now, but it’s a fluid situation,” Kuhlman said. “The one thing that is still of concern is how this program will be funded after the start-up funds that have been appropriated by this legislation are exhausted.”
Jacob said he was also concerned about restrictions on scientific research.
“[One of the] main issues we’re struggling with is restrictions on whether international students, or international scholars for that matter, would be precluded from participating in certain types of research in toxins or biohazards for example,” Jacob said. “We’re trying to make sure there are not inappropriate restrictions on the ability of students, scholars, and faculty to participate in research.”
Last week’s appropriations bill also allows the federal government access to private student files. Jacob said Yale has been seeking clarification from the Department of Education about when, and under what circumstances, Yale would be required to turn over files to law enforcement.
Kuhlman said OISS is working to keep students updated about new government policies regarding foreign students.
“We’ve tried to get out correct information about what’s happening in Congress so students have best information available about winter break plans,” Kuhlman said. “[There’s] certainly a concern about travel outside the U.S.”
Kuhlman has been posting messages on the OISS Web site bulletin board since Sept. 11 in an effort to keep international students up to date.
“We try to be an ongoing source of support for international students and scholars,” Kuhlman said.