Although President George W. Bush recently ordered a crackdown on foreign student visas — the documents that allowed at least one of the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackers to legally enter the U.S — some Cornell officials and students do not believe that the measure will effectively counter terrorism.
“We’re going to start asking a lot of questions that heretofore have not been asked,” Bush said at the debut meeting of the Homeland Security Council on Oct. 29.
According to Brendan O’Brien, director of the Cornell International Students and Scholars Office (ISSO), the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) currently does not effectively keep tabs on foreign visitors.
“I’m not certain how thoroughly the INS is able to monitor every visitor in the U.S.,” he said.
However, O’Brien said he does not believe that targeting international students will effectively decrease terrorism against the U.S., since students make up only one percent of foreign visitors every year.
“They are the most regulated population,” he said. He added that while students are fairly well-regulated, tourists, who make more than 90 percent of visitors each year, are not.
Bush said that while he welcomes legal immigrants who plan to visit, study, or work while in this country, the government needs to reform the process so as to keep people with malicious intentions from gaining free access to the U.S.
“What we don’t welcome are people who come to hurt the American people, and so therefore, we’re going to be very diligent with our visas and observant with the behavior of people who come to this country,” Bush said.
Government officials have concluded that Hani Hanjour, one of the men suspected of hijacking the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, came to the U.S. on a student visa after promising to enroll, but never showing up, at Holy Names College in Oakland, Calif.
Another suspected terrorist, Mohamed Atta, who allegedly hijacked one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, entered the country after immigration officials determined that his application for a student visa was pending.
O’Brien said that although a small minority of students fall out of legal status, they generally do not pose security risks.
Nassim Majidi ’02, president of the Cornell Iranian Students Organization, said that most universities have agreed to a tracking system, by which any missing student would be immediately reported to the INS.
“For these reasons, I do not think that targeting student visas will be an efficient way to counter terrorism,” Majidi said.
According to O’Brien, more than 500,000 foreigners are admitted to the U.S. each year on student visas, about 3,000 of whom come to Cornell. Approximately 1,000 international undergraduates currently attend the University, most of whom are Asian and Canadian.
The acceptance rates for foreign students have ranged between 21 and 26 percent over the past three years, said Wendy Schaerer, interim director of the Undergraduate Admissions Office.
“All of the students at Cornell maintain legal status and contribute a great deal to the campus,” O’Brien said. “International education exchange is a very positive thing generally.”
To obtain a visa, accepted students must submit proof that they have financial support for the time they will be at Cornell, Schaerer said. After Cornell receives this, it issues I-20 immigration forms that verify acceptance, financial support and English proficiency. Students take the I-20 forms to their local American consulates to apply for F1 visas.
“We have been fortunate to have few undergraduate students denied visas in the past,” Schaerer said.
When investigating visa applications, visa officers have historically tried to screen out those students who are most likely to remain in the U.S. after their studies have ended, rather than returning to their home countries, Schaerer said.
“Therefore, there is a greater presumption of likelihood to remain in the U.S. when students come from countries in economic or political turmoil or countries from which large numbers of students have remained in the U.S. in the past,” she said.
Majidi had a much easier time obtaining a student visa as a French citizen than when she applied as a citizen of Iran.
“Now that I am French, the waiting period is very short, and I obtained a multiple entry visa valid for five years,” she said. “However, when I had my Iranian passport, I had to wait for a month to two months, and my visa would be valid for one entry only, for a period of one semester. I had to repeat the process at the end of every semester.”
Majidi continued, “It is already very hard for a student from Iran, Iraq, Syria, or other ‘rogue’ countries to come to the United States to study. Our files are looked at meticulously, and even at the airport we undergo detailed physical search and interviews.”
In contrast to the experiences of students from Middle Eastern countries, students from Canada, the United Kingdom and Western Europe obtain visas without much of a problem, since they have been historically more likely to return home after completing their studies, O’Brien said.
Richard Deneault ’02, who lives near the Canada-U.S. border, described the process of obtaining a visa as “absurdly easy.” He claimed that once accepted, “you pretty much have an F1 visa.”
Some aspects of Bush’s proposal may prove problematic because of understaffed consulate offices, Schaerer said.
“The part of the proposed legislation that concerns me is the requirement that each prospective student wait one month after applying for a visa while the INS or State Department conduct a background search,” she said. “At present, most posts overseas are understaffed. Even though the proposed legislation includes increased funding, I think it unlikely they would be able to fund staffing sufficient to do a background check on each candidate.”
Some lawmakers have proposed a six-month moratorium on new foreign student visas until the government can implement a more effective system for tracking them.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of State Colin Powell will direct the task of tightening controls on student visas. Just months ago, Ashcroft and Powell considered relaxing the immigration system for guest workers.
Majidi, however, said that she hopes tighter visa rules will not discourage students from applying to Cornell.
“The United States’ educational system has enormous advantages to offer, and these benefits are to me much higher than the cost of applying for a visa under tighter rules,” she said.
Archived article by Stephanie Hankin