New Laws Complicate Foreign Students' Lives

When president Clinton signed the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IRAIRA) last September, the public debate about immigration had reached an apex; even defenders of unlimited legal immigration recognized the need to change how the U.S. government deals with the issue.

The final form of the bill was a melange of tough, new provisions designed to snuff out illegal immigration and strengthen existing border control laws.

Foreign students, in particular, were targeted by U.S. law enforcement agencies after authorities discovered the role several students played in two high-profile terrorist acts--the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City and the shooting outside Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Va.

Accordingly, several points of the law, both preventative and punitive, could affect foreign students and scholars now residing in the United States.

Representatives at the Harvard International Office (HIO) fear that an oft-overlooked provision of the bill could also significantly change the relationship between colleges and international students.

Tracking International Students

As the new law is presently written, the Justice's Department's Foreign Students Tracking Program will eventually require colleges to compile an "event log"--maintained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and other government agencies--for every student and staff member who is not a U.S. resident.

The log includes such information as changes in a student's financial aid situation or enrollment status, students' level of health insurance and exact legal status as non-residents, according to HIO Associate Director Sharon Ladd.

The HIO, with a budget of a little over $1 million and a staff of 18, is responsible for overseeing the well-being of international students and scholars at Harvard and acting as an advocate for them, Ladd says.

And it is that very mission that HIO Director Seamus P. Malin '62 fears the new immigration provisions will change.

"It runs the risk of shifting the kind of role that [the HIO] has had in the past, which has pretty much been as a counselor, a concerned being somewhat of a reporter of students and events," Malin says.

The Tracking Program has not yet been implemented nationwide, as the INS has not yet finalized the regulations that the new law requires the agency to write.

But the Justice Department has begun to test the program with a pilot tracking initiative called Coordinated Interagency Students (CIPRIS) in 22 colleges and universities in the southeastern United States, including Duke, Auburn and Clemson universities.

Institutions involved in the program use high-speed computers that are linked directly to the Justice Department and report the events of their international students, Ladd says.

When the program is fully implemented nationwide, foreign students will be issued a picture identification card that will function as a passport, she says.

"There's going to be information embedded in this ID," Ladd says. "It's going to have a picture on it. It's going to have a fingerprint on it."

Eventually, foreign students will be required to present the card whenever they apply for a job or travel out of the country.

Although critics fear potential Orwellian implications, Malin cautions that the program is still in its infancy.

"They reserve the right to make dramatic changes based on how the pilot program goes," he says.

Moreover, events such as "having a beer illegally or anything like that" will not be reported to the INS, he says.

'Out of Status'

Other provisions of the new law may have a more immediate impact on non-residents.

The law imposes tough new penalties for being "out of status" for more than six months.

A foreign national is out of status if, for example, she leaves school for a term and returns to finish the rest of her years at the College, finding that her temporary student visa has expired.

An individual out of status for six months would be banished from the country for three years, and a visa expired for more than a year would net a 10-year banishment.

Currently, about five Harvard students each year find themselves temporarily out of status, said Parker McC. Emerson, an HIO adviser to students and scholars.

And since the new law would require the college to report that information to the INS, the HIO would be placed in the sticky role of both reporting the infraction--and advising the student on his or her next course of action.

Malin said the office is marshaling its resources to inform Harvard's international community of the new regulations.

The HIO Web site warns students: "We do not have any assurance from the U.S. government that students who have been too busy to maintain their status will be exempted from these very punitive measures."

Some international students say they fear that the new law will further define a role for the HIO that the office does not wish to assume.

"For the average student, the international office is a layer of bureaucracy we need to deal with do things," says Zimran D. Ahmed '98, a native of Pakistan.

Ahmed sees the office's role as primarily "functional," helping foreign students with tax forms and travel. But HIO, Ahmed says, "would rather be a resource for students."

"If they become deputies [for the INS], this will shift them to even more of a bureaucracy," he says.

Nationwide Concern

The federal government has made it clear that educational institutions like Harvard will be forced to work closely with government agencies.

"The success of this project will depend upon continual cooperation and communication between the government and the participating institutions and programs," cautions the INS in a news release about CIRPRIS.

But educators across the country are concerned about the program's implications.

In the magazine International Educator, Gary Althen, director of the Office of International Students at the University of Iowa, writes that "the fundamental question about CIPRIS is not whether its technological approach to 'regulating' students and scholars will work, but whether it ought even to be attempted.

"Foreign student advisers who are partners with the INS are not going to be partners with the foreign students and scholars on their campuses," Althen writes.

INS Bureaucracy

The concern over the new immigration laws is about immigration reform.

As the agency responsible for immigration matters, the INS has come under intense scrutiny. Congressional critics say the agency is not prepared to handle increasing waves of immigrants, both legal and undocumented.

Some Harvard students say they have had difficulties with INS bureaucracy.

Nienke C. Grossman '99, a U.S. resident since she was four years old, applied last semester through the Harvard-Radcliffe College Democrats for a summer internship with the Environmental Protection Agency.

But Grossman was turned down at the last minute because she was not yet a citizen. Since her parents were not themselves U.S. citizens, Grossman had to wait until she was 18 to begin the citizenship process. "If [the application process] had gone according to schedule, I would have been able to work at the EPA," she says.

But the INS lost her full application, including fingerprints and fee, once, misplaced her fingerprints two additional times, and lost her fee alone once more, Grossman says.

Ladd says she knows of several faculty members applying for citizen status who have had similar difficulties with their fingerprints and the INS.

In the past year, the INS has become more meticulous in scrutinizing applications in response to pressure from Congress.

Republican legislators last year accused Democrats of racing prospective citizens through the application process to increase Democratic votes in that fall's congressional elections. The Republicans alleged that the INS was not properly checking fingerprints or prior criminal records of the applicants.

"So now they are checking [closely]...which means lots of confusion and time delays," Ladd says.

The INS states that "an unprecedented backlog" of citizen requests in 1996, numbering about 1.2 million, did not allow the agency to scrutinize applicants as closely as the agency would have liked.

Reform or Abolition?

In early August, a federal panel, empowered with a mandate for INS reform, instead recommended the abolishment of the agency.

Under the panel's plan, the State Department would handle all aspects of legal immigration and would administer the citizenship process. The Justice Department would assume direct responsibility for dealing with illegal immigrants and border control, as well as CIPRIS.

In an interview, Rob Koon, an INS spokesperson, says the future of the agency depends largely on the will of the Clinton administration.

Still, Koon says he thinks the INS "can do the job as we are currently structured."

As recently as last Friday, for example, the INS announced a revision of its much-criticized naturalization process.

"They've gone through a complete reengineering of the naturalization process and, of course, adding in the changes with the fingerprint policies," Koon says.

Koon declines to elaborate on why the agency changed the fingerprinting system, but said that the new naturalization process had long been a concern of INS Commissioner Doris Meissner.

Even if the INS is dissolved, the CIPRIS program and its nationwide evolution would still continue, as mandated by the 1996 law.

Meanwhile, Malin and Harvard's international student officers say they will do their best to help foreign students sort out their rights and responsibilities under the new regulations.

"The stakes are higher now," Emerson says. "We're here to help, but we may hit some situations where we're not going to be able to help," he says.CrimsonSamantha A. GoldsteinSHIFTING STATUS: ZIMRAN D. AHMED '98 is one of many international students whose status and work will be tracked by the federal government.