International Students a Security Threat?


By iTEP Chairman Perry Akins

In July, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement suggested new guidelines affecting schools that are approved to enroll international students. Their proposal would give the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) the authority to “request evidence of a school’s standards for admission.” If the record keeping is determined not to meet standards—which are not specified—SEVP may deny a school’s certification without advance notification or the chance to fix a particular deficiency. Traditionally, it has been the responsibility of individual schools to establish admissions standards, not the US Government’s.

The concern is that an out-of-status student has ill intent for the US, even though there are no statistics to support this notion. Yes, of course, there have been a few rotten eggs legally entering the US as students. However, among the tens of thousands of international student visitors, very few have committed terrorist acts, especially when compared to other types of guests or legal visitors.

We have all read or heard that there are between 12 and 15 million undocumented folks from unknown lands living in the United States. The government does not know their names nor their whereabouts. In addition to this group, there are non-student visitors and businesspersons who arrive on our shores legally every day, and no record seems to be kept by Homeland Security (who oversees ICE) as to their whereabouts or even if these visitors ever leave the US.

Tracking International Students Does Little To Make Us Safer

So why this obsession with international students and not the undocumented guests or the legal visitors who never return home? The answer is quite simple. The first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, was, in fact was carried out by an out-of-status international student the government had lost track of.

Next came the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Initially, there was a concern that an international student was behind this terrorist act. When the government began looking for the records of that particular student, they discovered their own Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) record keeping was amiss. Those of us involved in bringing students to the US at the time were not in the least bit surprised. We knew that INS was not keeping track of international students as they were supposed to be doing. Schools were, for the most part, complying with regulations, but INS was not capable of processing the paperwork being submitted by the schools on their international students.

So, a new agency was formed to track international students. It was known as the Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students or CIPRIS. It was a failure and was discontinued in 1999. After it was learned that an out-of-status international student was involved in 9/11, the Patriot Act required that a new system be put in place to track the whereabouts of all international students. Interestingly, only one of the 19 terrorists involved in the 9/11 World Trade Center attack entered the US on a student visa. The others entered on visitor visas (14) and business visas (4).

The government knew they had to do something to show the American people they were right on top of tracking international visitors since some amongst future visitors might be terrorists. They selected the only visitor category they knew would be the easiest to track: international students. This category is the easiest because someone else would be doing the tracking on their behalf—officials employed by the schools enrolling the international students. Yes, SEVP established their own tracking system (SEVIS), but it is the school officials who were given the front-line responsibility for tracking the students.

Homeland Security can proudly boast to the American public that they (with the help of schools) know the whereabouts of all international students studying in the United States. But for Heaven’s sake, don’t ask Homeland Security about the whereabouts of the millions of undocumented residents, nor of the many visitors who entered the US legally and never left.

We’ll all sleep more soundly at night knowing Homeland Security is keeping tabs on all the international students. I would probably sleep a little more soundly if I knew they were also tracking all the types of visitors—both legal and illegal—who are actually statistically shown to be potential threats.

Read this article as it originally appeared on Perry Akin’s LinkedIn page. Follow iTEP on LinkedIn.