The U. S. government is finding it easier to find visitors to the United States traveling fraudulently on student visas because of controls the federal government put in place after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Some of the 9/11 hijackers entered the U. S. on such visas. Information provided by the new SEVIS (Student Exchange Visitor Information System), made it possible to surgically pick out and arrest “155 individuals” out of “770,000 students” from abroad studying in the United States, shortly after the system was operational, according to Under Secretary for Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson.
Hutchinson spoke at a Heritage Foundation panel discussion of the Student Visa program on August 2nd. Other panelists included Nils Hasselmo,(pictured), President of the Association of American Universities; Victor Johnson, the Associate Executive Director for Public Policy of NAFSA: Association of International Educators; and Susan Geary, Acting Director of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) of the Department of Homeland Security. The panel was hosted by James Carafano, a defense and homeland security analyst for the Heritage Foundation.
According to the panel, the holes in the student visa program that the 9/11 terrorists exploited are now fully patched; no real security threat remains. Now, they agree, the big problem is having gone too far and denying access to America by legitimate students and scientists from abroad.
While security is much tighter all around, Nils Hasselmo remarked, the United States must ensure that it does not lose the lead in educating the worlds’ students. The unfavorable images many foreigners have of America is hurting us already, he argued, noting that student visa applications are down 24% from 2001. “Foreign universities are catching up,” he warned. Apart from that, Hasselmo suggested that the security aspect of the visa system should focus on “problem cases” and remove “unnecessary barriers” to entry—among other things, extending the duration of student visas to encompass the duration of the course of study.
Victor Johnson echoed Hasselmo’s concerns about foreign students choosing other nations for higher education: visa applications “are trending down in the U.S. while skyrocketing in our competitor countries.” He observed, “international students, to put it crassly, are good for business . . . security vs. exchange is a false dichotomy.” He applauded the security measures put in place, adding that “now it’s time to fine-tune these controls without compromising our safety.”
Susan Geary rounded out the discussion with a more detailed description of SEVIS and some of the data it gives the Department of Homeland Security—among them, the 5 countries whose students form the largest number of those studying in the United States: South Korea, India, China, Japan, and Taiwan. Also included were the 3 U.S. states with the greatest population of foreign students: California, New York, and Texas; and the 3 campuses with the highest population of such students: University of Southern California, Ohio State University, and Purdue University. Geary admitted that problems still remain and that the SEVIS system is not yet fully “streamlined,” but said that her organization is working hard to iron out the problems.
The panel generally agreed that the cause of most of the problems was excessive, “bloated” bureaucracy, as opposed to a fundamental flaw in the mission or idea. The biggest individual snag that the panelists pinpointed was the way the visa system overlaps the authority of the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security, part of a compromise written into the legislation creating the latter. All supported giving Homeland Security responsibility for the whole visa system, thus clearing much of the bureaucratic morass.
A rising sophomore at Kenyon College, Peter Seabrook is an intern at Accuracy in Academia