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Foreign students under scrutiny 

Education is a building block, a powerful force for change, and a way to expand mental horizons and economic opportunities. The list of education's commonly cited virtues goes on and on, but here's another, less familiar observation: "Education is an export." That's what Catheryn Cotten, director of the Duke University and Medical Center International Office, says. "Education is an export, and we need to make sure, like with any export, that we make it easy for people to avail themselves of what we have to offer."

Of course, it's not always so easy. There are obstacles that stand in the way of foreign students seeking higher education in the United States. To begin with, there are the considerable sums of money required to cover travel, tuition and living expenses. Then there are the mounds of visa-related paperwork potential students must slog through--a maddening maze of forms required by the U.S. State Department for recording personal data.

And yet, despite the barriers, there are presently an estimated 490,000 foreigners--including those who are here to go to class, do research, teach and serve as visiting scholars--in the United States on temporary education visas, a record number. According to the most recent available data (from 1998-99), about 7,000 of them attend North Carolina schools.

U.S. officials insist that they welcome foreign students to this country, and with good reasons. "I taught at Georgetown University where we had many, many foreign students," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in a November 1999 speech at a Slovakian university. "As a former professor, I've found that programs which brought foreign students into our universities not only enriched the students that were coming but certainly enriched the American students."

Aside from the benefits of rubbing shoulders with the international community, as Albright reminded Congress during budget hearings last February, there is also a considerable financial boon: "the $8 billion that foreign students spend annually in college towns across our land."

In April, the White House made its policy on foreign students clear in a special directive on international education. The document reminded federal agencies that "the goodwill these students bear for our country will in the future constitute one of our greatest foreign policy assets" and instructed them that "we are committed to encouraging students from other countries to study in the United States."

But America's message is mixed: The same government that is opening its arms to foreign students is also taking steps to monitor them more closely, on the grounds that they may represent a threat to national security. Among the issues that threaten to throttle the flow of foreign students is international terrorism--or, more precisely, the domestic counterterrorism programs launched in response to perceived terrorist threats. The programs are based on the assumption that foreign terrorists seeking to attack this country may enter U.S. borders under the guise of students seeking knowledge.

"The whole thesis that foreign students represent some major threat has not been borne out," says Robert Locke, director of UNC-Chapel Hill's International Center. And yet, the academic community will bear the brunt of new obligations imposed by federal counterterrorism laws, including an unprecedented electronic reporting system that will fill government databases with information on visiting students.

As the government sets up tougher roadblocks for students from certain countries, and enhances its monitoring capability for all foreign students, university officials like Cotten and Locke are stuck in the middle. They are trying to keep their roles clear. First and foremost, they say, their purpose is student advocacy--not law enforcement. "We don't work for Immigration or the Department of State," says Michael Bustle, director of the N.C. State University Office of International Scholar and Student Services. "We work for the university."

Like it or not, counterterrorism initiatives are affecting the daily duties of international education workers at every post-secondary school in the United States. Federal laws have thrust them into a role that does not appear in their official job descriptions: They have become defenders of students who are under suspicion simply because of where they come from and what they want to study.

The current push to keep a closer watch on foreign students stems from 20 years of escalating government concerns that the United States is not doing enough on this front. Some officials have argued that the growing number of foreign students opens up a gaping security breach through which would-be terrorists can pass undetected.

The issue broke into the headlines during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. In that tense international imbroglio, students loyal to Iran's new revolution held members of the U.S. Embassy staff in Tehran in captivity for more than a year. Meanwhile, the Carter administration was chagrined to find that U.S. authorities had no system in place to promptly locate and track the thousands of Iranian students who were in this country at the time.

The situation prompted calls for more vigilance that intensified during the 1980s, when the Reagan and Bush administrations made fighting terrorism a centerpiece of presidential politics. Not until the '90s, however, did the government take concrete steps to systematically tackle the problem of students as potential terrorists.

That potential, supporters of stronger control measures say, was graphically demonstrated in 1993, when terrorists bombed the World Trade Center, taking six lives and injuring more than 1,000 people. A Jordanian citizen later convicted of driving the van filled with explosives, Eyad Ismoil, had entered the United States in 1989 on a student visa. After a brief stint studying engineering at Wichita State University in Kansas, Ismoil dropped out of school and stayed in-country as an illegal alien--until the day of the bombing, when he fled back to Jordan. Arrested and extradited to the United States in 1995, Ismoil is presently serving a 240-year prison term.

Congress' alarm over the case was evidenced in two pieces of legislation enacted in 1996: the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The laws endowed the Immigration and Naturalization Service with greater counter-terrorism duties and mandated the creation of a new system for "electronic collection" of data on foreign students.

The system, developed by the INS in consultation with U.S. universities, is called the Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students (CIPRIS). Begun as a pilot program in 1997, it has become ground zero in the debate over how (and how much) to track the academic activities and whereabouts of foreign students.

In one respect, CIPRIS is not much of an innovation. Since the 1950s, U.S. colleges have been required by Washington to submit data on foreign students, using paper forms, on everything from enrollment status to academic major to involvement in work-study assignments. CIPRIS, as one user explains, is simply "a way to do electronically what we already do on paper."

Using a conventional office computer and special software, international education offices access the CIPRIS network, which runs between schools and the INS. All the electronic reports on a given student are centralized in one file, so that updating the student's record is as easy as logging on to CIPRIS and typing in any changes in status or studies. The new system, according to university staff who have tried it, has removed many of the cumbersome chores associated with the old paper processing of student information.

Some schools in our region are intimately familiar with the program and are helping shape it during the test run. In seeking to operationalize CIPRIS, the INS selected the Southeast to host the pilot program. The agency found the region ideal for testing a new student-monitoring system for two reasons. First, it is home to a representative sampling of schools, large and small, public and private. More importantly, it is within close working range of a high-tech INS center in Atlanta, which was beefed up to process the influx of foreigners at the 1996 Olympic Games.

Twenty-one educational institutions accepted the INS invitation to help with the CIPRIS trial. Two Triangle-area schools, Duke University and Shaw University, were among those that signed up.

CIPRIS was controversial from the beginning. Schools that chose to participate were going out on a dangerous limb, according to some leaders of the international education establishment. Gary Althen, then the president of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, a major advocacy group, questioned both the "faulty assumptions" behind the project and how the new system would impact the university-student relationship.

"International education practitioners who want to be educators rather than deputies, who view foreign students and scholars as contributors to the education of us all rather than as potential terrorists, have no choice, it seems to me, but to pursue the repeal" of CIPRIS, Althen argued.

In addition to the ugly aura of terrorism suspicions hanging over the program, critics warned that the financial burden of implementing CIPRIS would be excessive and unjustified. In a critique of the program solicited by the INS, Althen's group complained that "CIPRIS imposes on schools the costs of implementing a federal law-enforcement initiative that is unrelated to the schools' academic and student-service objectives."

By bringing counterterrorism into the information age, Congress had set international education and national security on a collision course.

Most students were away from school, on summer break, when the latest flare-up in the long-simmering dispute occurred. Last year, Congress created the National Terrorism Commission (NTC), a blue-ribbon panel of diplomatic and national security experts, and tasked it with taking a fresh look at U.S. counterterrorism strategies. In June of this year, the NTC released its report, "Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism."

The report sounded an alarm, declaring that "international terrorism poses an increasingly dangerous and difficult threat to America" and calling for "significantly stepping up U.S. efforts" against the threat. The NTC asserted, in what was to be its most controversial recommendation, that the United States needs "an effective system for monitoring the status of foreign students nationwide." While most of these students are here in good faith, the report said, "there is a risk that a small minority may exploit their student status to support terrorist activity."

The mention of foreign students in the pages of a counterterrorism report raised the ire of some university officials whose job it is to facilitate international education. "It's really a crock," says Bustle. "There are half a million international students, and the vast majority are wonderful, ethical people who obey the laws here and in their own country."

"Just the juxtaposition--terrorism and students--concerns us," says Cotten. "Most people in international education are concerned any time that students are somehow linked with terrorism, that a report that's put forward to control terrorism specifically identifies students as a risk factor. It implies to the general population that every foreign student is some kind of latent terrorist, which is not the case at all."

In making their case for stricter supervision, the NTC asserted that "experience has shown the importance of monitoring the status of foreign students." For example, some of Iraq's top nuclear engineers did graduate studies in the United States during the 1980s and then returned home to assist Saddam Hussein's campaign to develop atomic weapons. The report cited as its prime evidence the case of Eyad Ismoil, the ex-student who helped bomb the World Trade Center.

"Today, there is still no mechanism for ensuring the same thing won't happen again," the report said in reference to the case. The NTC endorsed CIPRIS as "one program [that] holds promise as a means of addressing the issue." The new system can keep track of what some believe is potentially useful intelligence: what foreign students study. "For example," the NTC noted, "CIPRIS would record a foreign student's change in major from English literature to nuclear physics."

All non-U.S. students will soon have that kind of data about their academic pursuits fed into an automated system, but government agencies will be honing in on a select segment within that population. They constitute a small group, about 1,700 students, attending post-secondary schools throughout the United States. They come from seven countries--Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria--that have one thing in common: They are all officially designated by the State Department as "state sponsors of international terrorism."

Students from those countries undergo special scrutiny, in the form of in-depth security investigations, before they are granted permission to study in the United States. The U.S. consular officers who process visa applications are on watch for students specializing in topics on the so-called "critical fields list"--those scientific and technological areas thought useful in developing weapons of mass destruction.

If, for example, an Iraqi citizen were to request a visa to enter a U.S.-based graduate program in nuclear physics, the odds are against approval. An Iraqi studying English literature, however, just might make the cut.

This screening process is too arbitrary and haphazard, some critics say, to guarantee that all the wrong students will be denied entry to the United States. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, for example, has issued reports calling for a crackdown on student visitors from Middle Eastern countries on the terrorist list. The United States, one of the reports urged, should "deny entry to such students seeking to study 'dual use' subjects that could contribute to their countries' development of missiles and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons."

The State Department says it already filters out students seeking such expertise, but acknowledges that there's no agreed-upon set of standards defining which fields of study meet the "dual use" criteria.

For Abdul Masri, a 22-year-old undergraduate beginning his fourth year at N.C. State, the question is far from academic. He's a Syrian citizen, one of the few students in this area hailing from a country on the list of terrorism supporters. (State Department and INS spokespeople told The Independent they cannot provide an accounting of how many such students have made their way to North Carolina. The figures reported by the big three Triangle universities suggest that only a meager number have. At N.C. State, there are two Iranians and two Syrians. At Duke, one Iranian and one Sudanese. At UNC-Chapel Hill, four Iranians.)

A computer science major, Masri fits the profile; he's just the type of student that some counterterrorism hard-liners would like to send home. That he was under suspicion was clear from the moment he arrived in the United States, Masri says. At his point of entry, a New York airport, immigration agents detained him, interrogated him and searched his luggage. "They are very picky when it comes to us," he says. "I'm young, I'm Syrian. I have the typical characteristics they think of."

Welcomed by an American university, but still under the wary eye of the U.S. government, Masri has become well-acquainted with the contradictions embedded in U.S. policy. "I understand both sides," Masri says. "It's the duty of each country to protect its people, but the United States is the freedom-loving country, so that duty is harder here than in any other country. I understand why they are strict and why they watch, and I understand why they welcome everybody."

What he can't understand, he says, is why anyone would want to curtail his software studies or his time in the United States, a country he says he loves. "I think I've learned a lot from this country. Learned how to be able to say whatever I want to say. I always, always, wanted to do this, since I was a very small child, but you can't do this in [my] part of the world. There your opinions are always limited, you can't express everything. When I came here, I found exactly what I want."

At Duke's international office, Catheryn Cotten says she is sensitive to concerns that students' civil liberties might be jeopardized by new counterterrorism programs. At the same time, she says, she jumped at the chance to get in on the ground floor of an INS program affecting students and help steer it in the right direction.

"One of the great advantages" of being involved with CIPRIS, Cotten says, "is that for the future, we helped build a system that will work right here in our offices, and we won't have to accommodate the immigration service; they're going to accommodate us."

So far, program participants say, the INS has made good on its pledges to seek and act on feedback from the schools. CIPRIS, despite a few quirks, has developed into a workable and even beneficial system. International education officers say they like it because it centralizes their INS-required reports, provides for more accurate and timely records, helps schools build their own databases, frees up file space and cuts down on paper usage.

"Tree-huggers will like this thing," explained Jane Cherry, who helped implement CIPRIS at Methodist College in Fayetteville, in an article in International Educator magazine. "Just in terms of sheer time saved by the equipment, it's wonderful."

Still, concerns remain. "It is quite different, to report something electronically," Cotten says. "All that data is in a database somewhere, and any reasonable person is concerned about who has access to data, who might break into it, what they might do with it. And so those of us in international education want assurances, which we may or may not get, that the data will not be used inappropriately."

And while most higher education officials have made their peace with CIPRIS, seeing it as a fait accompli (the program is supposed to go national by 2003), there are holdouts who are not looking forward to implementing it. "I would be happy if they just repealed the whole thing," says N.C. State's Bustle.

Foreign students are already "probably the most controlled group of nonimmigrant residents in the United States," says UNC-Chapel Hill's Locke. "There's a huge record of who they are, where they are. They're already so over-regulated, I don't feel that they need more."

Aside from their qualms about the hassles of implementing a new system that they are not convinced is necessary, educators remain skeptical about the intent of the program. The INS, some believe, mainly wants CIPRIS because it builds a database on an easily scrutinized subgroup of foreign visitors. "International students are a control group," Bustle says. "They [the INS] figure if they can get universities to track and monitor students, then half their work will be done."

There are disagreements among university officials about how to respond to programs like CIPRIS, but there is a broad consensus about the need to keep the law-enforcement aspects of counterterrorism out of the academy. Their duty, the educators say, is to protect academic freedoms against all threats, terrorist and counterterrorist.

The real threat, Cotten suggests, may be "the insidious effect of the mindset that thinks of the world as full of terrorists." If that notion starts to define U.S. policies toward foreign students, then all the benefits derived from international education will be at risk.

"Anytime you curtail international exchange, anybody who's doing anything international suffers in some way," Cotten says. "Globally, progress slows. Discoveries that might have been made this year don't happen until next year, or the year after. Improvements in technology, improvements in social relationships can't happen if people can't talk to each other."

And any potential students turned away because of concerns over terrorism won't just lose their shot at a top education; they'll also lose faith in a system that has gained international respect for opening its academic borders and sharing its concept of free inquiry.

Abdul Masri, the Syrian student, has mixed feelings about programs like CIPRIS. "Unless it touches on my personal life, it's fine," he says. "But these things can make us feel very awkward. If our privacy is violated, it will be very bad. This happens in my country all the time; I come from a country that's been ruled by dictators.

"If this country ever got to the point where these things are actually going to happen, if we lose privacy just because we are not Americans, then, for me, there is no place on Earth that will have freedom. I always thought that the United States--and I still believe this--is the only country where you can have complete freedom." EndBlock

  • Foreign students, the federal government and American schools in the middle.

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