On Being a Threat to Homeland Security

News & Politics

As the academic year begins at colleges and universities across the country, new students everywhere are doing things for the first time. Even the smallest task can be like a rite of passage. Yet for over half a million international students and scholars enrolled in American universities, this time may involve more than buying textbooks and moving into a first dorm room. In fact, it might also include a considerable number of unexpected setbacks as the immigration laws enacted over the past several years are finally having an impact.

The fact that one of the 9/11 hijackers had been in the U.S. on a student visa has launched several new pieces of major immigration law surrounding international students and scholars. These laws make visa security checks more thorough, tracking of international students more constant, and America less appealing to some of the brightest minds in the world. In fact, a recent study by the Council of Graduate Schools found that the number of international students applying to the nation�s top grad programs has declined by 28 percent.

Getting Here

Because so many of the terrorists entered on visas and were not screened in personal interviews, new laws require most travelers be interviewed. Interviews take a massive amount of manpower, which manifests itself in long waits for visa interview appointments with U.S. consulars around the world. For example, the Saudi Arabia consular advises travelers that they will face a minimum six-week wait, but security checks could take several months; in Seoul, the wait is, on average, thirty days.

Once the appointment is granted, however, the wait for international students and scholars can be even longer. Two programs are currently in place that require certain types of immigrants to have additional security clearances. In these programs, called Visas Mantis and Visas Condor, the applicants� names are sent to Washington, D.C. and must receive clearance before a visa is granted. The Visas Mantis program distinguishes anyone who is studying or involved with areas on a State Department �Technology Alert List,� or TAL. The list, although it is supposed to be classified, was inadvertently posted on the State Department�s website, according to the Los Angeles Times. As expected, topics that can clearly be construed as possibly terrorism-related, such as nuclear technology, rocket systems, chemical and biotechnology, and biomedical engineering, are on TAL. The Times also reports, however, that at the end of 2003 other areas were added that are less obviously suspect; urban planning, architecture, and housing and civil engineering were added, along with microbiology and physics.

Virtually any area of study can be construed as a potential terrorist threat so activists question the utility of TAL. The level of secrecy surrounding the program, however, makes it difficult to assess its successes and failures. Visa applicants are rarely told whether or not their work falls under a Visas Mantis category. While the State Department maintains that the check usually takes thirty days, ten percent of the 200,000 names they processed in 2003 took more time than that, according to the New York Law Journal. In December 2003, 300 Mantis applicants had been pending for over three months.

International students who are male and between the ages of 16 and 45 and from certain countries face another security clearance hurdle in Visas Condor. Among these countries are those considered "state sponsors of terrorism": Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, and Sudan. A student or scholar can be subject to both Mantis and Condor and thus experience incredible delays. The Los Angeles Times cites the case of an �Iranian nuclear physicist� who took seventeen months (and a much-delayed academic plan) to get his student visa to come to the United States.

An April 2004 survey conducted by the Graduate Division at UC Berkeley shows that over eighty percent of students from the Middle East and Israel reported delays in their academic plans. One Indian student commented in the survey: �A major issue for all international students is delays in getting visa renews in their home countries. At times, this process takes up to a month. This means we have to be away from [UC Berkeley] and our studies for longer periods.� Academic plans at Berkeley have also been disrupted by new laws; according to the survey, almost half of international students and scholars have altered their research plans because they do not want to be, or cannot enter the country, while on TAL.

Lawrence Gower, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars at UCLA, says that the best his University can do for students is advise them that they might be on a security checklist – if they are studying a subject on TAL or if they are from a predominantly Muslim country, Korea, or Cuba – and tell them to start their application process early. "Expect the delays because that's the reality that we have," says Gower.

Staying Here

Recent University of California, Berkeley graduate, Imad Ahmed, is an English citizen who left Pakistan before his first birthday. Last December, at the advice of UC Berkeley counselors, he registered with the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration in a program called NSEERS. The program required non-citizen males from twenty-five countries to come forward under the threat of deportation for noncompliance. Any male between 16 and 45 whose nationalities were from any of these countries had to register by May and April deadlines. Ahmed says that the experience was humiliating; officials took his photograph, fingerprinted him, and requested contact information for his friends and family in the U.S. He recalls a woman who was processing registrants; she said that if he missed a single deadline, �We�ll come get you.�

Yet NSEERS made Ahmed more fearful than embarrassed. He said that when special registration began, he �was waking up in cold sweats� and had many sleepless nights wondering about what would happen to him. His parents in England told him to keep a low profile; Ahmed did not really know how to do that. He was not speaking out about registration, but he says, �I was afraid to be on my own computer to look at [alternative news] websites. I was afraid that just by default, by being a Muslim and being an international student, I would be blacklisted.� Of course, Ahmed was not referring to any specific list � there are so many lists (Visas Condor and Mantis, TAL, no-fly lists, etc.) � but of an overall fear of the FBI and of a country that seemed to fear him.

Ahmed explains how he was very wary about minor violations that other students took for granted. He was careful not to get a speeding ticket, and to file his taxes on time. He spoke about a friend who was even terrified of getting a parking ticket (in Berkeley, where parking tickets are very common). �Small errors,� Ahmed says, �cause big trouble�; the trouble being fines or, even worse, deportation and an interrupted education.

Although NSEERS was called to halt last December, in the fall of 2004 a new program called SEVIS, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, was initiated. Part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), SEVIS is an online database that tracks international students� and scholars� eligibility to be in the country. The system requires that every institution hosting internationals keep up-to-date records of those students� registration information, local addresses, progression in their academic courses, and of the entries and exits of their children and spouses. If a student falls below twelve units (full time status), completes his or her academic program, or changes his or her address without notifying their host institution, the institution must inform the DHS via SEVIS. The student could then be put into deportation hearings or face fines. Furthermore, if a student arrives in the U.S. and is not properly registered, he or she will be denied entry.

It is for this reason that Ahmed, and many other students like him have decided not to leave the U.S. Although he is legally allowed to leave the country and return, Ahmed cancelled a trip to Pakistan. Instead, he has been working for the Democratic National Committee and waiting for his work permit to come through so that he can be paid. Until that permit comes through, Ahmed will not go home to England to visit his family, whom he has not seen since January. With so many students and so much information going to the DHS, Ahmed worries that something might be incorrect about his registration and cannot risk finding out while re-entering the country.

This year, for example, Director Ivor Emmanuel says that SISS keeps track of about 6,000 students and scholars and entered the names of their 9,000 dependents. The implementation of SEVIS is required but not funded by the government; with scarce resources in a time of budget crisis in California, UC Berkeley did not allocate any extra funds to SISS to implement the system or hire new staff. The change in workload and job description affects the way that international students and scholars interact with their hosts, turning advisory bodies, such as SISS, into government watchdogs. Emmanuel explains, "The nature of our work is not something we choose to do – these are mandated services. But right now, we are not adequately staffed."

Emmanuel says that, as the fall semester began, he has not seen delays as significant as last year's. He points out, however, that this could mean some international students are just giving up by comprising their educational goals or even by choosing not to come to America.

Even at UCLA, where a $40 fee charged to each international student is helping to cover the cost of implementing SEVIS, services are in jeopardy. Director Lawrence Gower says that while students are still receiving the counseling and service they need, "What has changed is the relative amount of time we have to counsel students." That counseling-time has been taken over by the effort it takes to continually update the SEVIS database.

The role of universities in the lives of international students has changed; as Ahmed puts it, international services are now, "a friend, and watchdog, as opposed to just a friend before." If international students drop below full-time because of health problems or family emergencies, for example, universities can no longer use their own discretion and must report them to the Department of Homeland Security.

It is not the time or money required by SEVIS that is making the biggest impact on international students, though. Emmanuel points out the psychological toll of SEVIS and other immigration laws specifically targeting international students. These students, he says, "feel monitored. And it�s not comforting." He says, "I think that the post-9/11 environment in the U.S. has created the overall impression that you're [international students] not to be trusted – in fact, you're not even welcome."

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