Eight years ago, right after the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government worked frantically to tighten the foreign student visa program.
At least one of the terrorists in the attacks had entered the United States as a student. He had been allowed to stay in the country even though he never showed up for classes — a violation of his student visa.
The challenge to catching his visa violation: There was no "real time" electronic tracking system in place to alert the school or the government to his behavior. Now Homeland Security is touting a new system that's supposed to flag suspicious behavior more quickly.
The FBI And The University
Within weeks of the 2001 attacks, FBI agents swooped down on college campuses, looking for students with possible terrorist ties. Federal agents had a few leads, but no real access to foreign students' records. They needed school officials to provide names, phone numbers and addresses.
"The initial knee-jerk reaction after 9/11 was dramatic," says San Diego State University Provost Nancy Marlin. She remembers her meeting with federal agents as anything but friendly.
"Suddenly, we weren't able to secure our students. They were being detained. We were getting all sorts of edicts about who could work in labs and what constituted sensitive material," Marlin says. "This just was somewhat chaotic at the time."
FBI agents were looking for one particular student who had transferred to San Diego State from a local community college. He was suspected of having ties to two Sept. 11 hijackers who had lived in San Diego. But in her discussions with the FBI about individual students, Marlin says one issue was key.
"We would go round and round on student privacy issues," she says. "Should these records have been disclosed? Should [students] have been notified?"
Enhanced System To Track Foreign Students
Louis Farrell is head of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He is overseeing the completion of a vastly improved tracking system called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System-The Next Generation, known by its acronym "SEVIS II." Had the system been in place in 2001, it would have made the search a lot easier, both for the FBI and for San Diego State.
Farrell says SEVIS II is a Web-based, paperless data system, which tracks individual foreign students and their activities. It creates a single record for every person, with an easy-to-track number.
"And that number will be tied to biometrics, 10 fingerprints. That information stays forever, and every activity that's ever been associated with that person will come up," Farrell says. "That's something that has been asked for by the national security community, law enforcement community — and even stronger than them, the academic community."
With the introduction of the SEVIS II system, colleges now seem more confident, not just about the technology and its reliability, but about the role of the school in monitoring foreign students.
Jane Kalionzes, associate director of the International Student Center at San Diego State, says it has been a sea change. Eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks, she says colleges have become an extension of law enforcement.
"It's second nature to us now," she says. "We're part of keeping our nation safe."
A Matter Of Trust
On orientation day for international students, counselors point out that they don't work for Homeland Security. They want the students to trust them, even though they're obligated by law to provide information that federal agents can now mine for suspicious behavior or violations. Of the 3,500 violations referred to U.S. immigration agents every year, about 1,000 are for deportable offenses.
Some Muslim students at San Diego State are convinced they have been singled out for scrutiny.
"I know a lot of students on campus, and they feel uncomfortable," says Mohammed Mohtasib, a 22-year-old Palestinian student.
On Sept. 11, Mohtasib was 14 years old, living in Hebron in the West Bank with his family, watching TV as the twin towers collapsed.
"I remember my mom cried," Mohtasib says. "We don't agree with what Osama bin Laden [was] doing because that has nothing to do with my faith as a Muslim. There's nothing in Quran that says you can kill civilians."
Mohtasib says that though he gets into heated debates with friends back home when he says it, America has been good to him.
"I love this country," he says. "This country offered me so much."
Other Muslim students say this whole "profiling business" is no worse here than in their own countries.
"That could happen to me in Egypt," says Ahmed El Desouky, a 26-year-old doctoral student in mechanical engineering. "Maybe I could talk to someone on the phone, someone will misunderstand the conversation. So it could happen here or there."
Provost Marlin says profiling, even in the name of national security, is wrong, which is why she's not sure higher education will ever reconcile its proper role in fighting terrorism.
"It's just an inherent tension, because we have very different missions — one for the university of inclusiveness and openness and wanting different perspectives and peoples, and the mission of Homeland Security, which is keeping people out who appear different or problematic," Marlin says.
Homeland Security officials say the new system to track foreign students was not created to profile or keep people out but rather to keep the country safe from another terrorist attack. Colleges, they say, are now crucial partners in that effort.