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Midweek Perspectives: Foreign students boost national security

Keeping our universities open to the world is vital to winning hearts and minds

Wednesday, January 09, 2002

By David Bryan Clubb

If many politicians and pundits had their way, the first casualty of the war on terrorism would be international educational exchange. That's because media outlets have focused on international students and scholars as threats to our national security and not as the national security assets that they in fact are.

   David Bryan Clubb is director of the Office of International Services at the University of Pittsburgh. 

And many in political office have joined the media in failing to inform the public of the many benefits that international students and scholars bring to the United States; instead, they have chosen to lead the public to believe that if the government would just tighten controls on international student and scholar visas, we would all be much safer. Some have even called for a moratorium on all student and scholar visas for up to six months.

The truth is that international students and scholars are a tremendous foreign policy and national security asset for the United States. And, in any event, tightening controls on foreign student and scholar access alone would do very little to ensure our national security: Fewer than 2 percent of the 30 million nonimmigrant visitors who entered the country last year were international students. To focus so much attention on such a small minority of nonimmigrants in our country will do little to improve our national security.

Certainly there is a need to do more to prevent fraud and ensure the legitimacy of the student and scholar visa process, but this can be done without sacrificing our position as the nation of choice for international students and scholars. If we allow the Sept. 11 attacks to drive us to shut the doors of our nation to international educational and cultural exchange, we will pay immeasurably in the loss of friendship, goodwill and understanding around the world.

The United States must continue to welcome international students and scholars to our college campuses. As former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley recently wrote, "These student ambassadors, who make lasting friendships in America and better understand our values and way of life, are the future world leaders with whom we will sit down to forge alliances around the globe."

Many Americans may be surprised to learn just how many foreign leaders have been educated in the United States, among them King Abdullah of Jordan; United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, from Ghana; Jacques Chirac, president of France; Vicente Fox, president of Mexico; Shimon Peres, former prime minister of Israel; and many others from more than 60 countries around the world.

Opening our country to educate these individuals ensures that current and future world leaders are exposed to the cultural, political, economic and educational values of America. These internationals are not part of the problem; rather, they are part of the solution and the hope for a more peaceful future. Secretary of State Colin Powell has stated, "I can think of no more valuable asset to our country than the friendship of future world leaders who have been educated here."

The United States must find a way to achieve both the security objectives that ensure the protection of its citizens at home and the openness that assures its strong and effective leadership around the world. To sacrifice one at the expense of the other would be shortsighted and detrimental to our nation's strategic position in the world community.

One way to achieve both objectives is for the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service to speed the implementation of the Student & Exchange Visitor Information System. SEVIS is a partnership between the INS, the State Department, the Education Department and school and exchange visitor experts. It is designed to convert a manual, paper-driven process to an automated process, and to ensure only bona fide students and scholars are issued visas and permitted to enter the United States. The system has been in development since 1995, and was statutorily mandated in Section 641 of the Illegal Immigration Reform & Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.

The U.S. government has not done enough to fund and support the development of this program. While the implementation of SEVIS will not resolve every issue, it is certainly a long-overdue step in the right direction. The U.S. government needs to provide the necessary funding and priority for this system and other initiatives that have been dragging on for years.

In the meantime, the media and political leaders need to stop focusing all of their attention on the exaggerated notion of international students and scholars as threats to our national security, and instead start talking about them as strategic assets in our war against terrorism. The continued commitment of the United States to support international educational and cultural exchange is essential in order to secure long-term victory in the war on terrorism.

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