Don't turn Iranian students into enemies of America

The Carter administration appears to be laying the groundwork to permit a massive expulsion of Iranian students, whether or not it ever chooses to go ahead with such a misguided retaliation against Iran. The estimated numbers of Iranian students in the US range from 50,000 to 75,000. Not only does singling them out for immigration sanctions raise constitutional and humanitarian questions; it could also create a generation of ill will among the Iranian people with whom the US will have to deal once the hostage crisis is over.

We are not talking about students found to be in the country illegally. Innocent people are being made to suffer, many of them individuals who are in America to escape the very regime in Iran which their deportation would presumably be intended to embarrass. It is to be hoped that domestic politics does not tempt the administration into any such grandstand play. A more counterproductive move can hardly be imagined as the new Iranian Parliament prepares to consider what to do about the hostages.

Yet college counselors, immigration lawyers, and the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs (NAFSA) -- not to mention Iranian students themselves -- are concerned about the actions being taken. At least two main thrusts are underway by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS):

* Pursuing a hard-line policy on Iranian students with short-term visas by refusing the usual extensions when the time for them becomes due. Thousands of these visas are now running out. There had been administration assurances about excepting students from President Carter's April order against issuing or renewing visas for Iranians. But students are hearing they must leave within a month of visa expirations or be faced by deportation. Some graduating seniors were reportedly told to leave before taking their final examinations, though there may be procedural ways for them to delay departure. As many as 10,000 students could be ordered to leave by the fall, according to the NAFSA.

* Changing the immigration regulations to eliminate the "duration of status" provisions under which many students, including Iranians, are now able to remain in the US without periodic extensions for the length of their courses of study. The INS is in the final stages of decision on these changes, which do not require legislative action or approval.

The changes would nominally apply to all foreign students. Those on indefinite "duration of status" stays would be required to report and have their stays converted to specific periods not exceeding one year. Thereafter application for extension would have to be made each year.

For Iranian students, with certain limited exceptions, the upshot could be no way of remaining to complete their US education. In other words, they would not be able to stay under "duration of status," which would no longer be available, nor would they be able to stay under the alternative of yearly visas with extensions, since extensions are not being granted to Iranians.

Whatever the actual motives of the Carter administration for proposing elimination of the "duration of status" provision, which has only been in effect for about a year and a half, the appearance is of one more move against Iranians in the United States. And fear about what may happen to Iranians in the US is reported to loom large among the people in Iran. Washington ought to pull back from harassing Iranian residents in the knowledge that America will eventually reap the bad will -- or the good will -- generated by the seeds it sows now.

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