International-student fee proposed

by Justin Costley

The University will begin charging a $95 fee to all new international students to build and maintain a national database of names and addresses, if a proposal by the Immigration and Naturalization Service is approved later this year.
University officials are concerned that the regulation might put the University in an uncomfortable middleman role between the students and the federal government. But INS officials said universities already share information with them.
Enforcing legislation contained in a 1996 federal immigration law, the database would be created to track violations of students’ visas. It might also be used to monitor students suspected of terrorist activity, said Dean Hove, deputy district director for the state INS office.
“There are times when the government, for some reason — and there may be none now — needs to find out where foreign students are located and what their nationalities are,” he said. “Right now, we don’t have a very good handle on that,” he said.
The INS estimates that during the next two years, the $95 fee will generate $47.5 million of revenue. With this money, the agency would set up and maintain the database of 500,000 international and exchange-program students estimated to be enrolled in universities around the nation by 2001.
Although the fee would be mandatory for students entering the United States after Aug. 1, 1999, the tracking system would not be operational until 2003. The fee, which students would have to pay every time they switch colleges, would affect about 1,000 students per year at the University.
The INS will be listening to comments until Feb. 22 on the proposal, before officials issue the final regulation sometime later this year.
University officials and educational groups have voiced administrative and philosophical concerns about the responsibility of collecting the fee.
“We don’t really think it’s appropriate for schools — higher education — to collect fees that belong to the federal government,” said Kay Thomas, director of International Studies and Scholarship Services at the University.
“It mixes the role of education with an immigration-enforcement role, and we don’t want that,” she said. “We are fighting very hard not to be seen as an arm of the immigration office.”
Thomas said the image of the international studies office as a government agency might make some students reluctant to go in for counsel.
“When you’re doing something on behalf of the federal government, your role becomes unclear,” she said.
She said international students might fear that in the course of paying the fee, they might also be reported to the government for other things, such as low-credit loads or illegal work schedules.
“People kind of wrestle with, are we reporting students? No, we are not reporting students. This is not our role,” she said.
Thomas suggested that the fee be charged by the government when students enter the country. She said the fee could be charged every five years, for two reasons: to remove the University from the equation, and also to avoid charging students every time they switch schools.
Eyleen Schmidt, INS spokeswoman, said her organization sees this proposal as a change in an already existing relationship, not as an extra burden on schools.
“They already have contact with the INS on a regular basis, so it doesn’t establish a whole new relationship that wasn’t there before,” she said.
Currently, the government already keeps tabs on how many credits international students take to ensure they don’t violate the status of their visas.
Thomas said with the “overwhelming” negative response to the fee, there is a good chance the proposal could be changed to exclude University involvement.
“We see ourselves as having the mission of supporting our international students and successfully accomplishing our academic and career goals,” she said.
“This is a government fee that is being imposed; it ought to be collected by the government.”

Justin Costley covers business and welcomes comments at jcostle[email protected]. He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3237.