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Our Not-So-Welcome Mat

By Alexander Bevilacqua

You are not welcome here. This is what the United States has—voluntarily or not—consistently communicated to international students over the last two years, since it instituted a database designed to track students while in the U.S. Despite the fact that the approximately 583,000 internationals enrolled in American universities contribute about $12 billion to the economy, on Oct. 27, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposed that each should pay a $100 fee to fund an elaborate scheme to monitor them. The suggestion that international students should submit to such fees for the privilege of studying in the United States fails to appreciate the value of international students’ presence on U.S. campuses and gives the message that the U.S. is not interested in attracting young talent from all over the world.

At least one Sept. 11 hijacker, Hani Hanjour, and possibly several others were in the country on student visas, motivating Congress to put the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) into full effect. There was a strong reaction to the revelation that some of the “academic” institutions that issued the student visas were little more than post-boxes. While previous measures in 1996 had mandated the use of a tracking system, only after these recent revelations did funding and public support put SEVIS to work.

However, there is a big difference between checking that universities issuing student visas are actually reputable institutions and setting up something like SEVIS, a database so detailed it records every course taken by every international student. If the students add or drop a course, the change is reflected in the database. One can imagine bells ringing somewhere in the DHS if a student from the Middle East takes too many advanced biology courses. Also, under the new provisions, government agencies can request library and even e-mail records of foreign students and scholars.

But America’s new attitude towards international students has extended beyond simply keeping track of them to actually diminishing their ranks. In the last two years, the number of student visas issued to students from Middle Eastern countries has fallen drastically, by over 60 percent, even from countries that are officially friends of America such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Applying for a visa has become a harrowing and slow process—a Harvard undergraduate from Malaysia waited three and a half months for his visa, finally being obliged to defer entry for a year, while a Harvard Law School (HLS) student had to spend a term in England before being able to return to Harvard. Even when students reach the U.S., there is tension. A small bureaucratic mix-up could escalate into a major crisis for the student involved.

The fee for SEVIS is also problematic. Unlike Harvard, most institutions do not have the funding to cover additional costs for these students. Such a policy can only lead to a loss of diversity in student bodies nationwide, as fewer resources are available to recruit foreign talent. What is worse, an independent consulting firm projected the cost per student at $54, indicating that the DHS plans not only to charge the students for the maintenance of the project, but to profit from them as well.

Important measures can and should be undertaken to protect this country. Initiatives such as SEVIS, however, are little more than extreme reactions to tragic events. International students are a valuable asset and often end up staying in their host country, thus employing their talents to the gain of their new home. The HLS student changed his plans for the future, choosing to reside in England. If we allow the recent problems in international politics to give free rein to those who would close this country off to all foreigners, we will take a path that can only lead to loss.

Why do Americans worry so much about their civil liberties and not about those of their international guests? Recent increases in government monitoring of U.S. citizens such as Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows government agencies to access the records of public libraries, have provoked much outrage. Little, however, has been said about the treatment of visiting students. The Harvard administration has also chosen to wait out the decision and see how other universities respond first. But this strategy is too timid. MIT president Charles M. Vest has been outspoken about the need to maintain freedom and diversity in universities, with the belief that it is in the best interests of the country as a whole. Harvard’s approach of gaining favor with the government is supposedly beneficial to the University, because when it needs to get something accomplished government agencies will be more well-disposed towards it. But this appeasement policy seems short-sighted, because it only clears the path for those government requests that may very well run counter to academic freedom.

We still have the chance to stand up against SEVIS: written comments on the proposed fee will be accepted by the DHS until Dec. 26. If Harvard fails to stand up against these overreaching regulations, there is little hope that the rest of the American university system will take serious action. By instituting not just an invasive database but a tax on foreign students, we will ultimately take one more step towards affording victory to those fundamentalists in the world whose aim is to distance us all from each other and stop the global exchange of ideas.

Alexander Bevilacqua ’07 lives in Canaday Hall.

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