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Guarding Against Overvigilance

Since September 11, the United States has struggled to cope with the ramifications of the horrific terrorist attacks on our soil. In an attempt to prevent future threats, the country has resorted to new and extreme measures. On the home front, this has meant federalizing airport security, securing the mail system, and taking a closer look at the activities of foreigners who are legally residing in the United States.

This last measure has direct effects on college students, including members of the MIT community. Fears that foreign students will use their nuclear, chemical, or biological engineering knowledge to create weapons for potential enemies has led Congress, the State Department, and the Immigration and Naturalization Services to advocate careful scrutiny of foreign college students. These fears had existed before the attacks on September 11 -- the INS was, and still is, in the testing phase of a congressionally mandated database to track foreigners studying on student visas, which would include national origin, school, field of study, and level of degree.

More recently, Attorney General John Ashcroft, this past week, ordered interviews with 5,000 recent legal immigrants -- specifically, college-aged males 18-23 -- mainly from Middle Eastern countries. A bill sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein would have placed a six-month moratorium on student visas, allowing the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to complete and implement the tracking database for all foreign students.

The Tech acknowledges the complexity of the issues that the government must struggle with as it seeks to provide security for its citizens. Some Americans see these measures amounting to a limited and workable plan to help protect U.S. citizens from further attack. Nevertheless, we should recognize that, even if justified, these actions violate the civil liberties of United States residents. Especially in light of President Bush’s recent announcement that suspected terrorists will face trial in a military tribunal rather than civil court, these measures, taken to the extreme, could potentially deny the civil liberties of legal U.S. residents beyond what is necessary for homeland security.

MIT has not been silent on these issues. The Tech commends President Vest for writing a letter opposing the Feinstein bill. The disadvantages of a moratorium on student visas would vastly outweigh any possible security benefits. On Saturday, The New York Times reported that pressure from colleges and universities dissuaded Feinstein from furthering her bill.

MIT has been successful thus far in communicating with legislators; now the administration needs to provide information to the student body. Students need to be informed on how the Institute is dealing with these developments. As the issue develops, Vest and other members of MIT’s senior administration must keep the community aware of how government action might affect our international students. For example, MIT’s International Students Office informed students yesterday that Canada and Mexico will no longer accept applications for non-immigrant visas from third-party applicants. This will make it much more difficult and expensive for international students to renew their student visas. MIT must keep abreast of such developments, and guide students through them. MIT should be a resource and an advocate for its international students if the need arises.

The Institute must also explain to students its policies concerning cooperation with federal authorities; for example, students should know whether MIT has been asked to give information about its students, and whether they will be notified if information is provided to the government about them. MIT must also realize that, being far from home, international students may not know where to turn if authorities do approach them. Within the bounds of cooperation with the law, MIT should act as an advocate for any student singled out for his or her religious, ethnic, or national background.

Part of what makes MIT one of the world’s premier research institutions is its diversity. MIT is home to students and faculty from many different countries, and the Institute actively collaborates with international research and educational institutions. The MIT community should be aware of recent government actions that might affect our international student population, and should prepare to take appropriate action to protect our community.