INS reveals plans for student visa security

by Kaitlin Bell | 5/16/02 5:00am

Acting on President Bush's October 2001 directive to step up surveillance of international students studying at U.S. universities, the government announced plans last week for a visa-screening program for international students in this country.

Foreign students seeking to do advanced work in subjects that may be directly applied toward making weapons of mass destruction would be subject to screening.

Also with last October's presidential directive in mind, the Immigration and Naturalization Service said last week that it will implement an Internet-based monitoring system to allow for a more efficient exchange of information on international students between the INS and American universities.

Because plans for the visa-screening process and the online monitoring system include specifications about how they are to be used and whom they will affect, the recent announcements have quelled fears held by some that the government might unfairly and needlessly target international students in a fit of post-Sept. 11 xenophobia.

Administrators from Dart-mouth's International Office said they and their colleagues in the field were reassured to know that government scrutiny of students will be limited. International Office administrators said they intend to comply fully with the new government policies.

They stressed, however, that because the visa review system will screen only about 1,000 to 2,000 carefully chosen student-visa applicants a year, the program will not likely affect undergraduates at Dartmouth.

"In general, if you are an international student, it's much more likely that you will be struck by lightning than that you will have your visa revoked," said Advisor to International Students and Scholars Robin Catmur. "But one of the reasons that INS may have targeted this population may be because this is an easier population to track," she added.

The visa review system, which has been officially named the Interagency Panel on Advanced Science and Security, will be established by a soon-to-be-issued executive order. It will include representatives from several government departments, including intelligence, law enforcement, education and science agencies.

The panel will screen visa applications that the State Department has decided need further scrutiny.

Although the panel will recommend that applications be rejected or accepted, as always, the State Department will make the ultimate decision about all visas.

Catmur said she was aware of the security concerns that prompted the establishment of the panel, but that because international students constitute only a tiny fraction of all visa holders in the United States, the excessive focus on them as a potential security threat may be somewhat misdirected.

International Office director Steve Silver added that only one of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers held a student visa.

More likely to have a direct impact on Dartmouth, Silver and Catmur said, is the establishment of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), which will electronically transmit information on international students to the INS.

The INS has long required U.S. colleges and universities to collect information about their international students, including date and place of birth, country of citizenship and expected graduation date, but until recently it did not require colleges to report the data that they gathered.

The online monitoring program is a result of 1996 legislation mandating an electronic data system to monitor international students in the United States, but lack of funding stalled its implementation until concerns about "homeland security" in the wake of Sept. 11 made the program financially possible, Silver said.

Catmur and Silver criticized the government's failure to involve academics in the decision-making process that has led to the establishment of the Interagency Panel and of SEVIS.

However, they said they support the increased scrutiny and in fact welcome the establishment of SEVIS.

"I do think the system is needed," Catmur said. "Before, we were collecting information about international students and we had no way to pass it along to INS. This will make it easier for us to comply with the law."