December 12, 2001 2 min read

Visa Scrutiny

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, federal lawmakers have put the system of granting visas to foreign students under intense scrutiny.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, and Sen. John Kyl, a Republican from Arizona, have introduced legislation that they argue would help prevent terrorists from entering the United States through loopholes in the immigration or visa system.

Sen. Feinstein, who backed away from a proposed six-month moratorium on all student visas after meeting with representatives of several higher education organizations, has called the current visa system “a source of serious abuse, with widespread reports of fraud and bribery.”

The proposed legislation would prohibit people from obtaining student visas if they came from terrorist-supporting countries, such as Iraq and Libya. Immigration officials believe that one of the hijackers responsible for the September attacks entered this country using a student visa.

President Bush also has asked for a review of the student-visa system. The president has directed U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to tighten controls and set up a system that ensures student visas are being issued appropriately.

Congress also is pushing for creation of a student database managed by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service that would track foreign students.

The American Council on Education and other higher education groups have been lobbying to make sure colleges and universities have a seat at the table as Congress works out the details of such plans. While college officials support the effort to make the visa process more secure, some worry international students are being unfairly tagged as potential terrorists.

Michael S. McPherson, the president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., says a balance must be struck between addressing security concerns and maintaining an accessible pipeline for foreign students to study here.

Students from more than 70 countries attend Macalester. In 1961, Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, graduated from the college.

“It’s a remarkable environment we have here,” Mr. McPherson said. “The level of awareness of international issues among our American students is higher than you will find on other campuses. We really want to help the government do a good job meeting legitimate security issues, but in a way that doesn’t prevent the Kofi Annans of the world from getting an education.”

—John Gehring

A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2001 edition of Education Week