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Is SEVIS a Savior?

Philip Burrowes

Attorney General John Ashcroft explained the proposed Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) in a press conference last Friday. In development by the INS since the 1990s -- it was formerly known as the Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students (CIPRIS) -- it seems like a positive venture. What is wrong with centralizing and modernizing government records?

Besides philosophical arguments against any further government monitoring, Ashcroft’s choice of words seem to reflect a misunderstanding of the point. Security concerns do not allow the attorney general to confuse the role international students play in the United States, but should make him address the issue with greater clarity and understanding.

He is clearly mistaken, for example, in his belief that the United States is “unique” in its role relative to international students. True, some institutions in this country, such as the Institute itself, carry reputations that attract applicants as few others would, but on the whole this country’s high education system is not a singular phenomenon. Indeed, France and Britain receive many immigrants from their former colonies.

Let us not forget that American citizens also go abroad, as is the case of many soldiers stationed in other countries (if not at the same levels directly following World War II). Disproportionate levels of foreign students in American higher education reflect issues within domestic secondary education, not the intellectual wealth of U.S. colleges; our high schools simply produce fewer qualified pupils.

This is despite the obstacles placed in the way of those applying for student or exchange visas in the first place. It is not merely a set of “limited conditions” like the “desire to breathe freely, to live peacefully, to respect the rights and the dignity of their neighbors” that must be met. Ashcroft would do well to examine an actual review process.

While lacking the official lottery and quota aspects of other visas, discretion is left to on-site and understaffed consulate officials, so for many applicants it can be a hit and miss process (witness the 40 percent rejection rate for Chinese applicants in 2001). Disciplines on the State Department’s “Technology Watch List” receive vastly more stringent attention, but with similar results.

Such students don’t necessarily come to the United States to use their knowledge for malicious purposes, but this is in line with restrictions on export of certain products. Ashcroft, moreover, believes the opposite is possible; “Allowing foreign students to study here is one of the ways we convey ... our principles to those who will return to lead their countries.”

Yes, many politicians, jurists, and leading academics in other countries are educated in the United States, but this is only positive to the extent they are given the right advice, which in turn presumes a supremacy (and universal applicability) of the American experience. Without debating that point, there remain many individuals who do not come to give back, but simply to gain for themselves. However unfortunate that may be, it means that students need not affect global security, or may even benefit the United States more than their native lands.

No wonder Ashcroft is so worried about “those who disguise themselves and their intentions” under the guise of student status; he attributes so much importance to students in the first place. His story has the United States playing an influential training role to the rest of the world through individual scholars. Danger exists only to the degree a destabilizing individual may penetrate that tutelary system and damage the United States itself. Which is where he sees the Department of Justice stepping in, to “protect the nation and its citizens from those who seek to enter our country under false pretenses.”

This is a very adversarial approach to the world, not altogether a departure from administrative norm but still incongruous to the discussion of schools. Interaction has been key to academia since the dialectic, and the more the United States convinces itself that it somehow can (and must) protect education as if it were a natural resource, the more it will find its schools becoming sunset industries.

Protection should not be thrown to the side. Open borders -- like most philosophical ideals -- are not feasible given the global context and the United States’ size. Identity theft is too easy given the decentralization and subsequent redundancy in I-20 distribution. Modernization of INS administration should mean more efficient visa review, which helps both “sides.”

Still, immigration has never has a been as big a problem as Americans have believed, especially for the purposes of education. Typical fears of a subclass of low-cost workers taking jobs away from Americans does not seem compatible with the academic discipline. Any threat displayed by an international is no greater than other residents of this country. The potential loss by making them feel unwelcome, however, is another story.