Foreign and U.S. students are opposing a new university fee that funds a government tracking system to watch them, known as SEVIS–basically charging students for their own surveillance. We speak with students at two universities who have taken direct, grassroots actions to oppose the fee. [Includes rush transcript]
Past Democracy Now! coverage on the SEVIS program:
- 9/30/03: Foreign Students Need Not Apply: A Look At the New Target of U.S. Govt’s Hunt For "Potential Terrorists"__
- 1/23/04: Electronic Tracking of International Students Begins Jan. 30: New Federal System Forces Schools to Share Detailed Personal Information with the Ins, State Department and Board of Education__
Foreign students in the United States last year became the latest target in the Department of Homeland Security’s widening hunt for so-called "potential terrorists."
A new monitoring system called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS, took full effect last August in colleges and universities around the country.
Under SEVIS, foreign students are required to enter personal information into a computer-based system that is then cross-checked against other government databases by federal agents in Washington.
But that’s not all. Some universities have gone so far as to add an extra fee for foreign students to fund the SEVIS program. So not only are foreign students being watched. They are being charged for their own surveillance.
Well, students across the country have taken direct, grassroots actions against payment of the SEVIS fee. We go first to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where students have refused to pay the $65 fee to the university. Joining us on the phone from Amherst is George Liu, an international phD student from China. He is an International Organizer with the Graduate Employee Organization, a union of graduate employees which is leading the protest against payment of the SEVIS fee.
- George Liu, an international PhD student from China at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is an International Organizer with the Graduate Employee Organization, a union of graduate employees which is leading the protest against payment of the SEVIS fee.
- Mike Quieto, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. He is the former co-president of the Teaching Assistants’ Association at the university which led the successful campaign last year opposing having international students pay SEVIS fees.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going first to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where students are refusing to pay the fee to the university. Joining us on the phone is George Liu, an international Ph.D student from China, international organizer of graduate employee organizations, a union that is leading the protest against the fee. Welcome to Democracy Now!
GEORGE LIU: Hi Amy. How are you doing?
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Is this fee levied just against the foreign students or all students?
GEORGE LIU: It’s levied against all foreign students and visitors who have F-1 or J-1 visits.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about your protest about the university’s reaction to you refusing to pay it?
GEORGE LIU: Well, the university sent out kind of threatening emails to urge people to pay for the fee, and some terrorists in the — in Bush’s office where we pay our bills tell people in an intimidating way, if you don’t pay the fee, you will be withdrawn. We are protesting at different levels. We are making it a public campaign. We think it’s about the image of the public. We also, having as many people as possible to withhold this $65 fee as a protest against discrimination.
AMY GOODMAN: In addition to George Liu, we’re joined on the phone by Mike Quieto, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, former co-president of the Teaching Assistant’s Association at the university which led the successful campaign last year opposing international students’ payment of the Sevis fees. He is joining us from community station WORT in Madison. Can you talk about the protest on the University of Wisconsin Madison campus?
MIKE QUIETO: Certainly. Thank you. Yes. It was an amazing event. We were in the middle of a really nasty contract dispute with the state of Wisconsin, and on April Fool’s Day, international students received an email from the university informing them that they would be charged an extra $125 next year to pay for their own surveillance. And literally, dozens of them emailed the university back to the effect of: we understand that you Americans have this tradition of April Fool’s D ay, but this is simply not funny. And so, on April 2, an additional email went out explaining to everyone, that, no, in fact, it was the real policy. 20% of the members of our union are international graduate students, and so, we certainly couldn’t sit on the sidelines as this racist, xenophobic policy was shoved down their throats. We marched on the administration building, we had rallies, got on TV and local radio, and actually got a resolution passed by student government and the city council denouncing the actions, and after a month of intensive pressure, finally on May 7, the Chancellor announced that he had found the money to fund it without any resort to student fees.
AMY GOODMAN: George Liu at the University of Massachusetts, what kind of consequence do you face as a foreign student refusing to pay this Sevis fee?
GEORGE LIU: We have right now passed the due date to pay the university bill, and we are waiting for a warning letter or email which says by a certain date if we don’t pay it in the full amount, then those withholders will be administratively withdrawn. Three weeks after that, they will report this information to the Homeland Security department and we might face to be deported.
AMY GOODMAN: Why are you taking this risk?
GEORGE LIU: I’m sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: Why you are taking this risk?
GEORGE LIU: Well, I — frankly, I don’t want to graduate from a school which fostered this discriminative and xenophobic atmosphere. I like U. Mass. I like it a lot, but I don’t want it to become this institution which discriminates against international students.
AMY GOODMAN: What about your response to the U.S. students who in solidarity are refusing to pay $65 out of their own fees in solidarity with your protest?
GEORGE LIU: I really appreciate the support that we have received from the U.S. students. They have San Antonio, you know, really courage and they have shown their ethics. They have shown great solidarity with the international students. That was really helpful.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Mike Quieto, the kind of support that you have gotten on campus at the University of Wisconsin?
MIKE QUIETO: Yeah, we were able to form a very broad-based coalition between the union undergraduate group, student government and clubs that were centered around international student issue, and came up with some amazing email lists and wonderful on-the-ground contracts. I would encourage every grad employee and teacher’s union on campus that is imposing such a fee to get out and do the organizing and make sure that this sort of policy is stopped because no TA. union certainly can be strong without reaching out to international members.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for both for being with us. Mike Quieto, former co-president of the Teaching Assistant’s Association at the University of Wisconsin and George Liu, international Ph.D student from China at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. We’ll certainly follow this grassroots movement around the country and encourage people to go it our website at Democracy Now! We will link to the other programs we have done on the Sevis program.