Accessibility links

U.S.: Proposed Restrictions On Foreign Students Questioned

  • Andrew Tully

Many Americans believe tighter immigration policies could have prevented the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. The 19 men suspected of hijacking the four jetliners used in the attacks were foreign nationals in a country known for its limited monitoring of visitors. Two U.S. senators want to change that. From Washington, RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully reports on the proposed changes, specifically the wisdom of tighter U.S. restrictions on foreign students.

Washington, 30 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Two U.S. senators, Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Jon Kyl, are drawing up legislation that would monitor visiting foreign nationals by setting up a central database of visitors and requiring each of them to carry an electronic identity card.

It also would forbid U.S. school enrollment for students from the seven countries that the State Department says are state sponsors of terrorism. They are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Cuba, and North Korea.

Feinstein and Kyl discussed the bill at a news conference on 25 October. They told reporters that three of the 19 men who are believed to have hijacked planes on 11 September were in the country illegally, including two who stayed in the country after their visas had expired.

The two senators said immigration officials should have known this and expelled them long before the attacks in New York and Washington. And they said the 16 who were in the country legally also should have been monitored. If they had, according to Feinstein and Kyl, the suicide attacks -- and the more than 5,000 deaths that resulted -- might have been prevented.

There is no evidence so far to suggest whether U.S. President George W. Bush would support the bill being drafted by Feinstein and Kyl. But on 26 October, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush believes in balancing open immigration with strict security: "The president believes America must continue to be a nation that welcomes immigrants to our shores. It's the finest tradition of our country. The president also believes we need to have laws that are enforced, and that we need to make sure that security is always taken into consideration as part of America's immigration policy."

Some Americans -- including a number of prominent politicians -- say the U.S. should guard its borders more vigorously and should be much more wary of whom it educates, especially in fields of study that could affect national security. For example, they cite the dangers of an Iraqi student who studies nuclear physics at an American university.

But analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say it would be wrong to issue a blanket ban on all citizens from a given country merely because their government is at odds with the U.S. Many agree that security could be tightened, however.

Ivy Kennelly, a professor of sociology at George Washington University in Washington, is adamant in opposing any restrictions on foreign students studying in the U.S. She notes there are American citizens who are terrorists as well -- most notably Timothy McVeigh, who was responsible for the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.

"We can't assume that any person from any one of these countries -- even though there are terrorist networks in them -- is a terrorist. We have terrorists in the United States. If we want to get rid of, if we want to deny education to potential terrorists, then along with not letting immigrants into the country, we have to not let people in the United States get into these schools."

Kennelly says foreign students do not merely take education from America -- they give back to America as well, whether they stay in the country as productive workers or return to their native lands while maintaining cultural or economic ties with the U.S.

"Regardless of whether somebody who has gotten their education in the United States has stayed here or gone back to whatever country they came from, they're in many ways helping the U.S. -- not just while they're here, but oftentimes they form ties with people here and have business ventures that go back and forth."

Christopher Edwards, an economist with the Cato Institute, a Washington-based policy center, agrees. He says foreign students educated in America tend to stay in the country and therefore add to the population of productive workers. This, he says, enhances the U.S. economy.

But Edwards adds that security concerns are valid. And he believes there is nothing intrusive or inherently wrong with keeping close track of foreign guests in the United States. So does Arthur Helton, the director of Peace and Conflict Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a policy institute in New York. Helton says: "There's no reason that schools shouldn't be required to pay more attention to the bona fides [credentials] of the students who are admitted to attend courses of instruction, or indeed that there might not well be a need for some kind of reporting, so that it is possible to know when people left the United States and whether or not they remained in [educational] status."

And yet, like Kennelly and Edwards, Helton is emphatic that there is a big difference between monitoring visiting students and keeping some out altogether: "We are not enemies of the societies of those countries. We are enemies of those governments or those regimes which have assumed leadership in those countries. And in that sense, we need ways to appeal to ordinary people, not only through our efforts at trade and communications, but frankly to introduce people to Americans and our way of life."

According to Helton, America's most important export should not be convenience food, action movies, or filtered cigarettes. It should be America's political and economic philosophies of openness and opportunity.