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 administrator...to 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.