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Foreign students fear INS is targeting them

Immigration says rules part of tighter security

Saturday, February 15, 2003

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Desney Tan knows things could be worse. As a student from Singapore, he's never faced anti-Arab taunts or scrutiny from immigration officials like some foreign students.

Still, Tan, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, isn't immune to America's growing wariness of foreign visitors. It's as plain to him as the updates he regularly gets about tighter visa rules, extra identification procedures and -- as of this semester -- a new database to electronically track him and other foreign students.

It's all a little unsettling for Tan, 26, a computer science student who arrived in America while still in high school and always felt like he belonged.

"I've been in this country since I was 14," he said. "Only now am I starting to feel like a foreigner."

Today is the deadline for any college in the nation that hasn't yet begun gathering data on its foreign students for entry into a new government database run by the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service. The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, more commonly called SEVIS, largely collects what had always been tracked on paper by colleges, though it was not at the government's fingertips and immigration officials seldom approached schools to get it.

The program is controversial to some who say it smacks of Big Brother and wrongly singles out a subset of the population for unfair scrutiny. But some of that criticism has been muted by the changed political climate since Sept. 11 and fears of more terrorism.

The database includes such information as a student's address, arrival date on campus, off-campus employer, focus of study and any changes to it, as well as whether a student is taking classes full-time, as required. All new foreign students recruited by a school must be on the system, and by later this year other foreign students who were already here must be added.

Some foreign students like Tan find themselves of two minds -- agreeing on the one hand with the government's desire to be cautious but fearful of what privacy they may lose.

"The general feeling is that things are tightening up, which by itself is not a bad thing," he said. "I live in this country too. I want to be safe."

But Tan also wonders if the convenience of having a database will tempt the government to intrude too far into his private life.

"When it becomes efficient, it becomes easier. It just cascades and all of a sudden the government's got every little bit of information about me, my credit card number and whatever," he said. "It kind of scares me."

Chris Bentley, an INS spokesman in Washington, said he knew of no agency interest in expanding the database. He said beyond enhancing security, the new system is intended to streamline registration and could help border officials verify the identify of someone entering.

"It's centralizing the information," he said. "It's a better management tool."

It's too soon to know how much effect the tightened rules, including SEVIS, will have on daily life for a segment of the nation's college population that is steadily growing.

A total of 582,996 foreign students attended the nation's campuses last year, according to the New York City-based Institute of International Education. Continuing a trend in recent years, the figure is up 6.4 percent from 2001 and 29 percent since 1995.

India, which accounts for about one in 10 of those students, surpassed China as the largest exporter. Others in the top 10 are the Republic of Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Canada, Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia and Thailand.

In Western Pennsylvania, the largest numbers of foreign students are at the big universities. Carnegie Mellon has about 2,400 students from 94 countries, the University of Pittsburgh enrolled nearly 1,700 foreign students last year and Duquesne University had 654, according to the institute.

But dozens of the region's smaller campuses have become more international, too. For instance, the institute said La Roche College has 293 students, largely through its Pacem in Terris program that brings students to campus from struggling nations. Slippery Rock University has 223 foreign students and Gannon University enrolls 157.

For decades, the tracking of foreign students has been spotty. But pressure was growing to change that even before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Allan Goodman, president of the international education institute, said the SEVIS program covers only a small percentage of the 33 million annual visitors to this country, from workers to tourists, who by and large are not tracked.

But INS officials say it's a start. Since Sept. 11, the system has become just one of the changes affecting international students.

At some schools, including Pitt, students have expressed increasing unease about a new INS requirement for special registration affecting foreign males -- including students -- from mainly Middle Eastern and Muslim countries considered to have a higher terrorism risk.

At Pitt, a flier left in campus mailboxes showed a World War II headline about the incarceration of Japanese and asked "What happened the last time they profiled by National Origin?"

The Pittsburgh ACLU said it's so concerned about potential abuse that it has recruited 70 volunteer lawyers to accompany foreigners, including students, who must go to the interviews.

"Right now it's ethnic and religious profiling. The Irish, the Italians and the Poles don't have to register," contends Witold Walczak, legal director of the Pittsburgh ACLU. "It is a program that is unlikely to catch terrorists, but it is terrorizing the Muslim and Arab communities. It's really creating tremendous fear."

Lisa Krieg, director of Carnegie Mellon's office for international education, said her concern is less about the debate over SEVIS than making sure that her school continues to foster a supportive environment.

"I believe in the power of international education to break down barriers," she said. "For the future of where our world is going we need to do what we can to facilitate opportunities for others to learn what Americans are about."

Bill Schackner can be reached at bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.

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