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International Students and US National Security
by Gary Endelman

Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP America Inc. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP America Inc. in any way.

Biography The Institute of International Education just published its annual review on foreign students in the US. What did they find? While, in sheer numbers, total enrollment continues to rise, the comparative percentage attracted by America as opposed to other nations has dramatically declined. This decline comes at a time of unprecedented questioning at all levels of America society and government concerning foreign students and whether they should be allowed in at all. Throughout the land, FBI agents visit campuses, question Islamic students, and pressure university administrations to provide the most personal information on them. Actions that would have previously been considered unthinkable, such as racial profiling, are now accepted in the name of homeland security. Acting solely though executive order, not even seeking the imprimatur of Congress, the President has effectively suspended the great writ of habeas corpus and instituted secret military tribunals that can operate without any judicial review right here to accuse, prosecute, judge and punish these same international students. The message that goes forth to the world, the same world that we claim to want on our side in the war against terrorism, is that we regard their best and brightest minds as a clear and present threat to our national security who can come, if at all, only under the most extreme scrutiny and intense suspicion.

At the start of the current school term, 425,433 foreign students enrolled at US institutions of higher education; this is double the number in British universities, the country with the next highest foreign student population. While we remain the place that most international students want to go, our dominance is less than it used to be. In 1982 39% of students who left their homeland for learning came here; in 1995, by contrast, our market share was only 30%. In the past decade other European and Western societies have initiated impressive recruitment efforts on a coordinated national scale to attract international students to their colleges, and it has paid off handsomely. Since 1994, for example, there has been a 73% surge in Australia's foreign population compared to a US increase of only 21%. France just announced a campaign to lure 500,000 new international students, and Germany is spending $16 million on its recruitment effort. There is not to say that we have anything to worry about right now. While our market share is down, the US remains the preferred destination of most foreign students. In fact, with a grand total of 547,867 during the 2000-2001 academic year, the US international student population saw a 6% spike, the largest such increase since 1979.

While we remain the place to go for most international students right now, the trends are obvious and disturbing. At a time when the competition for these students is increasing, our post-September 11th national trauma makes us less tolerant of their presence, and more inclined to view them not as an opportunity but a deadly menace. Far from creating new and innovative ways to bring in more foreign students, the US government is considering a moratorium on any new student visas or the implementation of stringent security checks at every stage of the application and visa issuing process. Make it hard for them to come, watch what they do when they are here, and make sure they don't try to stay - hardly a program designed to make our visitors feel welcome in their adopted home.

Should student visas be more closely monitored? International students are already given the third, fourth and fifth degrees by overzealous consular officers. They represent a tiny fraction of the total number of nonimmigrant visas issued each year - roughly 7.1 million according to the State Department data for FY 2000. All F-1 applicants are processed through the State Department's name check database known as the Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS). Beyond that, the State Department has adopted a special headquarters clearance system for students from suspect nations associated with state-sponsored terrorism or who might have access to sensitive technologies, particularly dual use technology that has potential military application. At a recent Congressional hearing, Mary Ryan, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, testified that the name check system revealed no adverse information about the 19 terrorists who carried out the September 11th attacks, including Hani Hanjour, the pilot of the jet that crashed into the Pentagon, and the only one of the 19 suspects who entered the country was on a student (M-1) visa. If the FBI learned anything about Mr. Hanjour, they did not share it with the Department of State. Finally, State has prudently instituted a 20 day waiting period before any student visa for an applicant from a troubled country can be issued so that the appropriate security check can be conducted. The issue is not whether America should protect itself but whether, once the necessary clearances have been obtained, foreign students can rely upon the protection of our laws and freedoms to enrich their educational experience. Undue laxity should not be replaced with mindless inquisition that only serves to antagonize our guests without making us one bit safer.

Just another typical bleeding-heart complaint, you say, from a left-wing wacko who doesn't know the country is at war? Hardly. Let us get real about what is at stake here. If these students need us, we need them a lot more. International students poured more than $11 billion into the US economy last year. The primary source of funds for 67% of these students came from personal and family sources. More than 3/4 of them get most of their money from international sources. They pay full tuition that bankrolls the graduate programs of every major university, and their presence makes possible the maintenance and enhancement of faculty staffing levels in all science, technology and mathematics disciplines. Graduate education in America could not survive in its present form without them, and those who run academia know it. Did you know that the healthiest branch of American higher education is at the local and community college level? Why? Perhaps the answer is, in no small measure, to the fact that, while foreign students are flocking to all kinds of American schools, the strongest growth since 1993, an increase of some 50%, has taken place precisely at these two-year institutions.

The economy of the 21st century is based on knowledge and the county with the best talent will be the most competitive and the most powerful. If America is to retain its position as king of the hill, we need to be the leader in attracting all forms of capital - including human capital. It is folly to believe that we need foreign students any less than we need foreign investment or trade. It is equally dangerous to assume that we can continue to sustain our leadership in the world without being able to draw upon the most innovative minds of all lands. That is where the current assault on civil liberties comes in. Americans should not oppose this out of noble sentiment or high minded altruism. We should not cry out in order to be kind to these poor foreign students. We should say "no" to those who equate the preservation of domestic tranquility with ripping up the Bill of Rights precisely because it will turn off and keep out the very international students and scholars we need, perhaps now more than ever before, to invigorate the American way of life and nurture the economy that makes it possible. If we, as a people under attack, turn away from the openness, the tolerance, the welcoming diversity, the instinct for individual liberty that made us so attractive to these students and scholars in the first place, we will not only be throwing away our natural advantages over the more culturally rigid societies in Europe and Asia for no good reason, but we will be doing so without any clear understanding or informed appreciation of how much we have lost. Remember the admonition of old: He who disturbeth his own house, shall inherit the wind.

About The Author

Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP America Inc. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP America Inc. in any way.