Published Online: January 22, 1997

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Law Puts Restrictions on Some Foreign Students

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A little-noticed provision of the federal immigration law that went into effect this past November puts new restrictions on some foreign students who want to study in U.S. public schools.

The provision, part of the voluminous Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 that President Clinton signed last fall, affects students who enter the United States on what is known as an F-1 visa. Generally, such students are not part of an organized student-exchange program.

The new law bars foreign students from receiving F-1 visas to study in public elementary and middle schools, grades K-8. Foreign students who wish to study in U.S. public high schools must pay the local school district for their education--and show proof of such payment--before being allowed to enter the country. They can attend the high school for no more than a year.

The change in law may take school administrators by surprise.

"I don't think the majority of the tens of thousands of schools out there are aware of this new requirement," said Andrew J. Prazuch, the director of government relations for NAFSA: Association of International Educators, a Washington-based professional association whose members are primarily from higher education. "No one knows how many people will be affected by this either."

Students on F-1 visas are considered temporary visitors to the United States. They must prove that they intend to enter this country only to study and that they do not intend to abandon their permanent residence in a foreign country.

The law does not affect students in formal exchange programs; those students generally enter the United States on a "J" visa.

It is unclear, however, how much of an impact the provision will have on K-12 public schools. In fiscal 1995, the latest year for which statistics are available, the U.S. Department of State issued 248,645 F-1 visas. The department does not track how many of the visa holders are attending public or private K-12 schools. But some experts said the majority of F-1 students are enrolled in higher education programs--for which they already pay tuition.

'Parachute Kids' Cited

The new law affects students who receive an F-1 visa or have their visa status extended after Nov. 29, 1996. But questions remain about how federal officials will enforce the provision because regulations have yet to be written.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and then-U.S. Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., proposed the measure late in the legislative process. A spokesman for Ms. Feinstein said she offered the provision after hearing about "parachute kids." The term refers primarily to wealthy Asian children whose parents send them to top public schools in California to learn English, gain solid academic footing, and, in some cases, avoid mandatory military service in their home countries.

Some students live with relatives or family friends; others live on their own. Some experts estimate that as many as 40,000 such students are living in the United States, though many argue that there are no accurate figures. Many such students are thought to have entered the country on tourist visas and by other means, not F-1 student visas.

Ms. Feinstein was told by law-enforcement officials that many such children were being recruited by gangs, the senator's spokesman said.

She was also concerned that students who received visas to enroll in private schools could then transfer to public schools and attend them at taxpayer expense. The new law makes it illegal for foreign students who receive F-1 visas to study in a private school to then transfer to a public school, unless they pay for the education and follow the one-year time limit.

During debate over the immigration bill, most education groups were focused on a highly controversial provision that would have given states the option of denying free public education to illegal immigrant students. The so-called Gallegly amendment, named for its sponsor, U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., dominated much of the debate and drew a threat from President Clinton to veto any bill that contained it. The amendment eventually died. ("School Provision Stripped From Immigration Bill," Oct. 2, 1996.)

In contrast, the F-1 provision "went through with relatively little or no fanfare," Mr. Prazuch said. "Everyone was so focused on Gallegly and other provisions."

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