Lawmakers seek new ways to track foreign students in US

As a trickle of Middle Eastern college students head back home from the United States, officials are looking for better ways to track the ones who remain behind.

In the days following the Sept. 11 attacks, police swooped down on campuses throughout the United States, prompted by revelations that one of the alleged hijackers who crashed into the Pentagon entered the country on a student visa. He never showed up at the California language school that admitted him.

Investigators asked schools for everything from addresses of specific students to detailed lists of everyone enrolled on student visas, says Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO). Some police departments sought the information merely to protect Middle Eastern students against reprisals, Mr. Nassirian adds.

Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government provided information about a former student after receiving a court-ordered subpoena. And William Carey College in Hattiesburg, Miss., politely said it had no students from the Middle East when police phoned on Sept. 11.

Overall, more than 200 colleges and universities have provided investigators with information about students since the attacks, a survey by the AACRAO found. Most of the investigators' questions concerned Middle Eastern or Muslim students.

Now, lawmakers are proposing improved monitoring of all 500,000 foreign students enrolled in American colleges and vocational schools.

Privacy laws

Federal privacy laws prevent the release of most student records, and colleges usually err on the side of student privacy.

But in this case, the US Department of Education invoked a health and safety exception to pry open files. Most schools heeded the call to cooperate, Nassirian says.

"Colleges are caught in an awkward place," says Sarah Flanagan of the National Association of Independent Colleges of Universities. "You don't want to be sitting on information that could prevent another incident." Fewer than a dozen institutions told the students involved.

Part of the problem, school officials say, is that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) lacks an effective way to keep tabs on foreign students.

Getting lost in the system

Colleges are required to tell the INS when a student drops out or graduates, but it takes months for the INS to enter data from the manual reports that schools submit. As a result, foreign students can remain in the US unchallenged for years.

Before the attacks, the INS had started building a database of foreign students' names, addresses, student status, and field of study. The program is supposed to be funded by a $95 fee charged to each foreign student, says agency spokeswoman Elaine Komis. But so far, the database hasn't moved beyond tests at a few schools in the Southeast and New England.

To some legislators, the current approach to administering student visas invites abuse. "The foreign-student visa program is one of the most unregulated and exploited visa categories," California Sen. Diane Feinstein (D) said after proposing a six-month moratorium on new student visas last week.

As an alternative, Sen. Christopher Bond (R) of Missouri proposed adopting a 30-day waiting period before issuing student visas to give consular officers more time to check backgrounds.

Student visas account for about 2 percent of entries into the US each year. Only 25 Iraqi, Iranian, and Afghan nationals are currently enrolled in American universities and most of them are refugees, says David Ward, president of the American Council on Education in Washington.

But universities have many reasons to keep the doors wide open to foreign students. In addition to what they bring to campus both academically and culturally, foreign students contribute considerably to university coffers, as they usually pay full tuition.

With new scrutiny comes unease

The new scrutiny leaves Middle Eastern and Muslim students feeling uneasy. "It's hard enough to get a visa to come here," says Ilhem Rachidi of Morocco, who just graduated from Boston University. "It's not going to help in the struggle against terrorism."

Ms. Rachidi says strangers on the subway now ask her if she's Muslim and says she has friends at BU who have received threatening e-mail messages.

Fears of more serious reprisals have convinced a smattering of students to leave the US since the attacks.

At Indiana University, seven departed, while Boston University lost 30 out of 4,400 foreign students enrolled this fall.

Officials at both schools say urgings from parents and host countries, including Indonesia, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, prompted most of the departures.

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