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Foreign Students Need Not Apply: A Look At the New Target of U.S. Govt’s Hunt For “Potential Terrorists”

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A new monitoring system that took full effect Aug. 1st is generating fears that foreign students coming under increasing government scrutiny may choose to study in other countries. We host a debate between a New York University Dean and a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript The latest target in the Department of Homeland Security’s widening hunt for potential terrorists: foreign students.

A new monitoring system is generating fears that foreign students, who now must sit for face- to-face interviews at U.S. embassies, may choose to study in other countries instead.

Universities increasingly count on foreign students as a source of revenue. A U.S. Institute for International Education study found that foreign students contributed $11.9 billion to the U.S. economy in tuition payments and other spending last year.

Under the new system, universities must ensure that each foreign student enters personal information, including current home country and U.S. addresses, into a computer-based Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS. The system took full effect on Aug. 1st.

Once student data are provided, federal agents in Washington cross-check it against other government databases.

Students must be in the SEVIS system to get visas but once in the database their names or homelands can trigger an in-depth security review, especially countries suspected of ties to terrorism, such as Syria, Libya and Iran.

And if a student is taking science courses listed on the State Department’s Technology Alert List — such as nuclear technology, biomedical engineering and biochemistry, among many others–that can also attract scrutiny.

The new system is generating hundreds of leads for federal agents, Homeland Security officials say.

This fall, 600,000 foreign students are enrolled at U.S. schools, according to The Associated Press.


AMY GOODMAN: Let’s begin with Catherine Stimpson, you wrote an Op-ed piece that appeared in the Los Angeles Times entitled “foreign students need not apply.” Why?

CATHARINE STIMPSON: Because I was concerned about how we were treating our international students.

I think we all share a belief in the need for security; this is not a question of undercutting security. My office was twenty-five blocks from Ground Zero. I never want to see anything like that again.

What we’re talking about here is two things. One is a question of values. The enormous value, not just economic, but cultural and intellectual and academic to America of our international students. One third of all Nobel Prize winners in America were born outside of America. So, we’re talking about a great pool of talent that is coming to the United States, and are we impeding the flow of this pool of talent in any way.

The second thing we’re talking about is how well is the State Department, and how well is the Bureau of Immigration and Custom Enforcement providing our security? Are they being efficient? Are they treating people respectfully? Are they being smart? So here are these two questions. One is an issue of values: the respectful treatment of people who are coming to America for good reasons, including reasons that help America.

The second is how is our government doing. Again, are they being smart? Are they being efficient? And are they treating people respectfully?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you seem to have some answers to those questions.

CATHARINE STIMPSON: Well, I wish that some of our students were treated a bit more respectfully. You know it’s hard to hear reports that one of your students who has been admitted after a vetting process, it’s hard to hear that they’re being told by a consular official when they go for their Visa that they’re too dumb to come to New York University.

And we’re getting these anecdotal reports and it’s not just about foreign students, Amy. It’s also about foreign scholars. Senior scholars as well, but we’re getting these reports of disrespectful treatment and reports of visas being denied.

Now again, this is a State Department issue as well as a homeland security issue. Visas being denied after very, very truncated interviews. It’s hard to tell why are the security clearances taking such a long time. The students can’t get here in time for their classes.

A consequence of this is that we’re probably going to see a drop in the number of foreign students, and we also see foreign students going to Canadian and European universities.

I understand that the government of Kuwait is now offering scholarships to Kuwaiti students to go elsewhere than America.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s get a response from the Department of Homeland Security. Garrison Courtney, can you respond to Dean Stimpson.

GARRISON COURTNEY: Ah Definitely. I mean, I think one of the first things we need to look at is there is a difference between the State Department and Department of Homeland Security. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency that is in charge of Sevis when students come into the United States doesn’t issue the visas. That is solely a State Department issue.

That whole process really, in a way it has something to do with us, but until they enter the United States, you know, we really don’t have onus on that whole affect so we can’t really speak for the interviews or the interview questions or anything else, I mean that is strictly the State Department. That is the first point I want to make.

Second, I think that Dean was talking about respectful treatment of people. Again, Sevis wasn’t something that was created overnight after 911. I mean, this has been a process over the last ten years since 1993 since the first World Trade Center bombing when congress said there needs to be a better system to track those people that are here in the United States.

Students especially because one of the World Trade Center bombers in 1993 was a student that had gone to the Kansas State University, had been there for a few semesters, had dropped out and we lost track of that person.

What Sevis does is it makes the system more effective. This is information we’ve been collecting for about 50 years. We just did it in an old antiquated, inefficient, paper driven system. The only difference between Sevis and old system is that this is an electronic system.

This is a system where we have central database where we can look and say, okay, this student hasn’t been attending classes for a semester or two, or three or this semester this student didn’t show up.

We need to know that information because a student needs to comply with their Visa requirements. It’s requirement by law that they go to school, that they attend classes, that they show up for the university. If they don’t do that, then that’s a loophole. That’s a loophole that’s been exploited in the past, and there wasn’t an official way to monitor that information.

I see a lot in the press reports where they’re referring to Sevis as a terrorist database tracking system. That’s not the purpose of Sevis. The purpose of Sevis is to centralize the information that we’ve been receiving since the 1940’s about foreign students.

And what we’ve done, there are still about 1200 schools that are accepting international students that didn’t meet the August 1st deadline that was mandated by congress, not by ICE I’d like to point out.

They didn’t meet that, so what we did as agency is set up a checks and balances. We didn’t want to stop legitimate flow of students and foreign scholars into the United States, so we sent out teams to the ports of entry, we set up a command center that was 24 hours, we talked to designated school officials which are the school officials that are points of contacts at these universities.

We actually came across thousands of people that weren’t in the system because the school failed to comply with that August 1st database, but we didn’t keep those students out. We worked with the schools, we said, this is something that we understand is not the student’s false.

We don’t want to create this barrier or keep the students out because they are important to the economy of the United States, they are important to the educational sharing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well let me see if this is same experience of Dean Stimpson.

CATHARINE STIMPSON: Well, I think that Garrison makes some true points, we’re working here with two big federal departments, one is state and the other is homeland security. It’s absolutely true that Sevis before 911 was a pen and paper, pencil and paper system and is now being computerized.

And I’m delighted to hear Garrison say that people are to be treated respectfully, and it’s true after quite unrealistic compliance state when some schools were not in compliance, though NYU was, the bureau of immigration and custom enforcement did try to work with the schools that were out of compliance.

Although I understand, Garrison you have to correct me if I’m wrong here, that the students you were trying help were students who were already enrolled rather than new students.


CATHARINE STIMPSON: I’m also delighted to hear that respect for our students is a value that we share. But let me ask you a question, is it not true that you have about 25 countries on your list and that all nonimmigrant males between certain ages, I think it’s 16 to 45 are given special treatment, they’re fingerprinted and go through special registration process, is that not true?

GARRISON COURTNEY: Well, I think you’re mixing and matching things. What you’re talking about is special registration, and that actually ended in April of last year. What that was, was a policy implemented by the Department of Justice where there’s a system coming out called U.S. Visit, that’s a system that is going to track every single person that is a nonimmigrant which would be a tourist, visitor, what not, that leaves and enters the United States. The reason for that is really there are over eight to 12 million people in the United States here illegally. Right now, there isn’t a system to track that.

Again, this is another congressionally mandated system. So what they did last year is they had to start somewhere.

The countries you know, I hear everybody talk about, “They’re Muslims and there this…” what the criteria was in special registration is what are the countries that have the highest terrorism threat to the United States, what countries support Al Qaeda, what countries have terrorist units based in their countries. That was the criteria, not the fact of–Were they Muslim? Were they Christian?–that’s where the press keeps grabbing a hold of and talking about and everybody keeps talking about.

We’ve deported, or out of our actual 114,000,000 people we deported, .01% were from all countries that you consider to be mostly Muslim based.

Mexico had 110,000 people that were deported back to Mexico. So, if you’re looking at a country that accounts for the highest percentage you’re looking at Mexico, which is predominantly a Catholic country. So you know, the statistics really don’t hold up. Yet the press over the last year saying–You’re targeting these people, you’re targeting those people.

AMY GOODMAN: Dean Stimpson.

CATHARINE STIMPSON: Garrison, I’m delighted to have that clarification since you were quoted in September of 2003 as saying that the government had identified 25 countries, and all nonimmigrant males between the ages of 16 and 45 had to go through the special registration process.

I think the important thing here, too, is that some things that we can agree on. And I’d love to hear from you, I think probably the listeners and viewers would too, would love to hear a series of steps that are being taken to make sure that this huge computer system is working effectively.

We’re working very hard, I have to tell you, we’re working very hard at my university and every other university I know to make sure that our students are in compliance, that means that they’re fulltime students, that means that their names and addresses are on this database. We’re working to make sure that we’re in compliance with the law. But in return what we need from our government, what we want from our government is to make sure that enough money is being spent on security so that it can be done well. For example, when the State Department was going to interview all of our foreign students before granting a Visa, no new resources were given to the State Department to do this.

So if we’re going to have unfunded mandates, let’s at least fund them if there is a reasonable motive behind them.

I think, too, another reassurance I’d like to have from my government, other than security being done intelligently, another reassurance I would like to have from my government is that we can balance freedom and security and that living in a global society and in a country that is based on immigrants, and quite rightly, and quite creatively so, that the foreign students are coming here are not seen as threats, but the foreign students that are coming here are seen as individuals to be valued as individuals, but also as a source of great economic and academic and cultural potential for us.

You know, we all have to remember that those bombers that I saw crash into the World Trade Center, those were not students except for one that was going to a flight school.

Is there danger in the world? Garrison you and I know there is. But the question for us all and where we’re asking our government to be wise and to remember American values, the question for us all is how do we treat human beings as they ought to be treated and how do we find that balance between security and freedom and our traditional values. And I am delighted to hear that contrary to some of the stories I’m afraid I’ve been told, the Bureau of Immigration and Custom Enforcement is with me on these values.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask, as we listen to Catherine Stimpson, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science in New York University and Garrison Courtney with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement about the technology alert list. For example, I just heard about some academics who had their Visas denied, who are supposed to be going to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Not because of them, but because of their field of study, epidemiology, which is now claimed “restricted” and requires special confirmation.

Can you talk about the subjects that are on the Technology Alert List, and why epidemiology, which would be about sharing global information about diseases would be restricted in that way?

GARRISON COURTNEY: Again, that’s really a State Department issue. I want to keep this clear definition of what ICE does and what Sevis does. We monitor the information; we look at the information and make sure that the student is compliant with the Visa once it’s granted by the state department. I think people have really deluded the difference between the State Department and what Immigration and Customs Enforcement does.

I was listening to Dean Stimpson, and she had some very good points. She is talking about funding, obviously we can’t control that. Congress has to approve and appropriate the money to us. And when we get a mandate all we can do is make sure that we comply with that mandate and comply with the congressional law just like everybody else has to. And so we work just as hard to make sure that we comply with that law having that balance between security and freedoms that everybody wants to enjoy in the United States. Now on that, again we do have to look at certain things.

CATHARINE STIMPSON: What were you going to say, Dean Stimpson?

AMY GOODMAN: I’m sorry, Garrison, I didn’t mean to interrupt you, I thought you were done.

CATHARINE STIMPSON: But you see, from the point of view of the student, or a scholar coming to this country, there are of course there are distinctions that I know matter to you between the State Department and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But don’t you think it would be helpful if there were also coordinated efforts, I’m not trying to set up this enormous totalitarian system, but in the life of the student as they pass from one federal department to another, perhaps the distinctions get a little blurred, and I would hope that for the sake of effectiveness and for the sake of the people that we’re working with that there is close coordination between these two departments in terms of fulfilling the congressional mandates. Is that a vein and futile home Garrison?

GARRISON COURTNEY: No. And that is something we do. We have to work with customs and border protection, which are the inspectors at the ports of entries. Those are the ones that have the authority to either deny or permit entry to a student. We did work through that process with those 1200 schools that weren’t in compliance with the August 1st deadline, we actually had special agents that were assigned to the port of entries to work with customs and border protection, and we actually did work with the schools too. There is a designated official at every school. There may be several. That’s something I do want to point out, just because a person, information may come up on them on Sevis, doesn’t mean that we’re going to go out and start looking for them.

We need to communicate with the school first and see was the person in a catastrophic event, did the person get in a car accident and end up in the hospital, that’s legitimate reason to not be attending classes. They’re in a hospital, they can’t. That’s something that we really have to look at as an agency. You have to have that balance. Is there a good reason? Is there a specific reason? Is there legitimate reason?

CATHARINE STIMPSON: Garrison, again I’m delighted to hear you say this. I’m going to ask for a tape of this show so that I understand more clearly than I did before how eager you are to work with the schools, and how eager you are to give students who are here for good reasons, the benefit of the doubt wherever possible so again I am going to ask for a tape of this show. But…

AMY GOODMAN: Dean Stimpson, have you found a drop in enrollment of foreign students at New York University?

CATHARINE STIMPSON: It’s too soon for us to tell. Registration, late registration is still going on, some schools that I’ve talked to have not experienced the drop, some have. There has been a demonstrable drop in American language programs. But in terms…

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean American language?

CATHARINE STIMPSON: …for special programs just to teach English language.


GARRISON COURTNEY: Can I add in a point here? The Sevis program goes and certifies school, when it comes to E.S.L. or English as a Second Language, or language programs we have since the 1980’s have had 77,000 schools bring in students. In California and several other areas, the E.S.L.’s were what we call a Visa factory. Where they would just issue Visa, the person would never show up or there were other investigations that ensued on that.

It’s important to point out as of 77,000 schools that we had identified as bringing in at least one foreign student, only just over 7,000 have applied for the Sevis program. And with the Sevis program there is certification, there’s investigation to make sure that the school is actually a school, and what we found through some of these things that some of the schools will be offering E.S.L. program, but professor or a teacher wasn’t appropriated for that school. So, you have a lot of fraud going on there. You had a lot of issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Dean Stimpson, your response to that.

CATHARINE STIMPSON: Wherever there is fraud, it ought to be stamped out. Where there is a diploma mill it’s doors ought to be closed. We’re all in agreement. The higher education, people in higher education our integrity is what we live by. To have diploma mill hurts us all. And if indeed through a variety of processes schools that were just open and revolving doors not giving education they shouldn’t be there.

But we’re talking about educational institutions that are legitimate and if we’re doing anything wrong, we ought to know about it. But the important thing here is how do we make sure that the U.S. higher education system, which is flourished in part because of scholars, and students who were born elsewhere, how do we keep it what it now is. The greatest magnet in the world for students and scholars.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note I want to thank you both for being with us. Dean Catharine Stimpson, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at New York University and Garrison Courtney, spokesperson for the Bureau Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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