Late last year, I wrote a column pointing out that one of the major challenges for the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security would be to bring some order to the chaotic visa-issuing and enforcement process.
And now that the department is a reality -- it became operative on March 1 when nearly two dozen federal agencies merged to create a huge new bureaucracy -- Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and his staff must figure out how to secure our borders against the threat of international terrorism. It won't be easy.
Among the agencies merged into the new department is the dysfunctional U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is charged with protecting our borders. So far, the INS has proven to be unable and/or unwilling to carry out its main responsibility.
Much of the blame for that sorry situation rests with Congress and the White House because they haven't given the agency the tools it needs to do its job for fear of offending militant immigrant rights organizations and the wealthy employers of illegal aliens. Employers like the giant Tyson Foods Corp., which has been charged by the Justice Department with smuggling hundreds of illegal immigrants into the country in order to keep its poultry plants running.
The INS has also failed to keep track of immigrants who enter our country on student visas. Recalling that several of the Sept. 11 hijackers entered the U.S. on valid student visas, Congress passed a new law requiring the INS and American colleges and universities to tighten procedures for tracking more than a half-million foreign students already in the U.S. Although the new law went into effect on Jan. 30, the results have been disappointing to date.
It's too easy to obtain a student visa. All a foreigner has to do is to obtain a federal "I-20" form admitting him or her to a college or vocational school (like a flight school) as a full-time student and offer proof of adequate financial support. The conservative Weekly Standard noted recently that many of these educational institutions "have minimal entrance requirements and they eagerly recruit foreign students," who pay full tuition.
"Today," the magazine added, "the education of foreign students has become big business." At prestigious Columbia University, for example, nearly 20 percent of the students were foreigners in 2001.
The University of Nevada is no exception. Last month, the Associated Press reported that Nevada schools are among those that have failed to meet a Feb. 15 deadline for implementing the SEVIS computer system to track more than 2,200 foreign students.
"It's a joke. It's been less than organized," said Joseph Nesbitt, a UNLV computer technician. "We've been planning for SEVIS compliance for a year, but we didn't have the computer specifications until recently."
Nationally, foreign students and university administrators are complaining about the new system. According to USA Today, "Education officials worry that by imposing yet another set of burdensome regulations on international students ... the U.S. could be squandering the goodwill that attracts about 500,000 foreign students to American colleges each year, not to mention the $12 billion they pump into the U.S. economy." Which tells me that too many university officials place revenue considerations above homeland security.
Some universities and foreign students are already whining about alleged civil liberties violations. The Washington Post reported last month that the new foreign student tracking requirements "have renewed fears among some faculty and student groups of overzealous FBI spying at colleges and universities that led to scandals in decades past." In other words, the FBI is the enemy, not potential terrorists.
The Post went on to report that "the (tracking) effort has touched a nerve among ... some Muslim activists, who fear that the government is inching toward the kind of controversial spying tactics it used in the 1950s and 1960s." Some even compared the new system to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. God forbid that our government should attempt to keep track of young Arab males following the murder of 3,000 innocent people by 19 brainwashed, hate-filled young Arab males.
Unfortunately, a few American colleges have harbored international terrorists in the name of "academic freedom." Exhibit A is Prof. Sami al-Arian, a tenured professor of computer sciences at the University of South Florida. On Feb. 20, Prof. Al-Arian and six co-defendants were arrested by the FBI and charged in a massive, 50-count federal terrorism-conspiracy indictment. The Weekly Standard described the good professor as "the global chief financial officer" of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which specializes in suicide bombings in Israel. Of course al-Arian's defenders rushed to accuse the FBI of "McCarthyism" and to assert that he's being punished "just for his ideas." Ideas like blowing up innocent women and children.
Like a Nevada gambling license, a student visa is a privilege and not a right. Applicants must prove they meet non-immigrant visa requirements. And once a visa is issued, the recipient must abide by the conditions attached to it. So another challenge for the Homeland Security Department is to track those foreign "students" who never show up to register, who drop out of school, or who graduate but stay in the U.S. illegally. In order to do that, however, the Department and the reorganized INS will need full cooperation from American colleges, universities and trade schools. I hope they'll decide to cooperate in the interests of national security.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.