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Security, But at What Cost?

Michelle L. Povinelli

In response to the horror of the September 11 terrorist attacks, America has demanded action, and in the last two months, we have gotten it. In addition to the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan and the ongoing federal investigation of the events surrounding the World Trade Center attacks, we have seen a flurry of legislative and executive action designed to increase our domestic security. Yet not all of this activity has been without controversy. From Bush’s executive order authorizing the use of military tribunals to try non-U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism, to Attorney General John Ashcroft’s call for the questioning of thousands of Middle Eastern men, recent government actions are sparking a crucial debate: to what extent are we willing to sacrifice civil liberties and individual rights in the quest to make our country safer?

For many students here at MIT, this question is not just a matter of abstract debate. Because several of the suspects in the September 11 attacks (as well as in the previous World Trade Center bombing) are thought to have entered the United States on student visas, the relative freedom of international students to study here may soon be restricted.

In the wake of the attacks, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) called for a six-month moratorium on student visas, a proposal that was subsequently dropped under strong pressure from representatives of U.S. universities, including MIT President Charles M. Vest. Yet the international student visa process remains under strict scrutiny.

The Visa Entry Reform Act, currently in the Senate Judiciary committee, proposes a number of measures to toughen up the immigration and visa system. Of particular interest are two components of the bill: the implementation of a monitoring program for foreign students, and the denial of foreign student visas to nationals of “state sponsors of international terrorism.” The monitoring program would ensure that students pass a background check before arrival, and are actually enrolled in a degree program once they arrive. As such, it is a reasonable response to the real threat of terrorism which we confront. It is the second component to which I wish to object.

The countries which the State Department considers to be state sponsors of terrorism are Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea and Sudan. Over the last four years, we have had between ten and twenty-five students from these countries per year enrolled at MIT. If enacted, the proposed bill would prohibit current and future students from studying in the United States unless they can obtain a waiver directly from the Secretary of State. While the practical details of such a waiver process are not yet clear, there is no question that it will be much, much harder for them to come here. We need to ensure that it does not become impossible.

Critics would argue that students from “enemy countries” represent a risk we need not and cannot afford to assume. Why hand over our technology? Isn’t giving a student a technological education just encouraging them to go make bombs? This view is not only technically inaccurate but fundamentally short-sighted (not to mention offensive). I would argue that despite the perceived risks, from terrorism to technology transfer, the potential benefits are far more important.

In a sense, foreign students represent the best chance for future improvements in the relations between our countries. For all students, the education we get here, as well as the friends we make and the networks we form, put us in an excellent position to contribute to our society. For foreign students, this means an opportunity to contribute to their own society as well as to strengthen the relationships between their country and America. As the President of the American Council of Education said in an open letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee on the subject of the original visa moratorium, “when [international students] return to their home countries, they are the best ambassadors we could ever have for democracy, personal freedom, and market-based economies. International education leads to understanding and respect for people from different people and cultures. If anything, we need more if it now, not less.”

Any questions of Western hegemony or free-market expansionism aside, it is undeniable that students who come from these countries to the United States to study are likely to experience a greater degree of personal freedom and an expanded array of life choices than they would have had in their home countries. We should be very, very hesitant to restrict this choice. But in the end, impeding the freedom and progress of the rest of the world, including that of the citizens of governments we oppose, is not the way to obtain our goals.

As the MIT community, let’s take this chance to reaffirm what we already are: a strong community of students, faculty and staff from America and from around the world, dedicated to learning, debating, and pursuing our common scientific and technological goals, hopefully with the aim of a better world.