USA Patriot Act causes concern for international students

Elizabeth Dunbar

The USA Patriot Act might deter international students from studying in the United States, say foreign students and an immigration attorney at the University.

Part of the legislation – which Congress passed one year ago to give law enforcement broader authority to combat terrorism – calls for expansion of the existing foreign student monitoring program.

Previously, the University provided law enforcement with information about international students only upon request, but the act grants law enforcement access to this information at all times.

Educational institutions must start using the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) on Jan. 30, 2003, to transmit information to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

This information includes enrollment status, course of study, changes in name or address, any disciplinary action taken due to criminal conviction and whether the student drops below a full course load without University authorization.

“It’s scary stuff for citizens,” said Luis Bartolomei, the immigration attorney for University Student Legal Service. “For international students who are under the impression that they have no rights when they come here, now those impressions are confirmed.”

Bartolomei said the broad power the legislation gives law enforcement could make students think twice about coming to the United States. But he said it’s unclear what the effects of the act will be because it has not been litigated in court.

“We don’t know a lot about SEVIS right now,” said Sulieman Nader, president of the Minnesota International Student Association. “We’ll have to wait and see how it is going to affect us.”

Ayman Balshe, president of the Arab Student Association, said he has talked to several Arab students who have questions about the act.

“People have shown concerns because they don’t feel good that people are accessing information about them without them knowing about it,” Balshe said.

He said students who switched colleges and majors were most concerned.

“They didn’t know if they would be questioned about it,” Balshe said.

But Tim Counts, spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Minnesota office, said the government is most concerned with people who have committed crimes.

“All of our activities are lead-driven. Ö The INS will not be roaming the campus at the University looking for (international) students who have changed their major,” he said. “(SEVIS) should be invisible to the student.”

However, Counts said, international students are required by law to report any changes, such as in their addresses or majors, to the University. This information is then reported to the Immigration and Naturalization Service through the Internet-based information system.

The service says the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System simply replaces an inefficient and often inaccurate paper-based system of tracking students.

“I don’t think anyone is saying we should eliminate international students,” Counts said. “Once it’s up and running, SEVIS will be an easy system to work with.”

But some worry that law enforcement’s authority to gather information targets foreigners.

“(The act) made it very clear that we don’t have the same rights as American students,” Nader said.

Balshe said even though the legislation has troubling implications for all citizens, some Arab students worry they will be targeted.

“They know the act is for everyone, but it was passed specifically toward people of certain origins,” Balshe said.

Bartolomei said he thinks there is an equilibrium between satisfying national security interests while continuing to attract international students.

“My optimistic take is that in a couple of years, we’ll see a rebound in students studying in the United States,” Bartolomei said.

Though the long-term effects of new government policies are unclear, many are wondering if the program will backfire.

“Our concern is that this whole thing will be a disincentive for people who are wavering between other English-speaking countries to come here,” said Kay Thomas, director of International Student and Scholar Services.

“When it’s a law we have to comply,” Thomas said, “but I wish political leaders would look beyond the students and scholars for a solution.”


Elizabeth Dunbar covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]