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MIT Could Do a Little More

Ever get that feeling you can never go home again? Our 2,700 international students have reason to feel that way, thanks to a new student-registration system from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department’s braindead visa procedures. International students have good reason to be concerned, but some simple efforts could go a long way toward alleviating international students’ uncertainty.

One: MIT should send international students copies of exactly what it will report to the INS’s new Student Visitor Information System before sending the information to the government, and give students a chance to correct inaccuracies in the reports. Better, MIT should develop a set of criteria to flag records that the government is likely to find suspicious, and help students who inadvertently get into such situations.

Two: MIT, whose internal policies aggressively guard students’ privacy in academic and disciplinary matters, should not knuckle under and violate those same policies when dealing with federal authorities. The Tech is particularly troubled by the International Students Office’s bland listing that it will provide “Disciplinary Action” and “Registration Each Term” to the SEVIS system, when the law mandating participation in SEVIS -- the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 -- only requires “disciplinary action taken by the institution against the alien as a result of the alien’s being convicted of a crime,” and “current academic status of the alien, including whether the alien is maintaining status as a full-time student.”

Providing all disciplinary action and a complete listing of registration might be the easiest way to comply with the law’s mandate, but it is certainly not the least intrusive disclosure MIT could make. Taking the easy way out shows a troubling lack of commitment to the disciplinary and academic privacy that MIT normally guards so aggressively. The ISO should scale back its disclosure to what is required by law.

Three: MIT should throw its weight around to help students sidelined by the State Department’s bizarre and braindead visa procedures. President Bush has fashioned himself the “education president,” but it is clearly unacceptable when his administration forces students returning to MIT to sit at home for literally months on end, not knowing when they may return to school, as a result of a notoriously inept and broken bureaucracy.

We are surprised that Isaac M. Colbert, the dean for graduate students, has advised faculty not to call members of Congress on behalf of students who are delayed, apparently believing this could somehow slow the process down even more. Immigration is a political process, frequently lacking rhyme or reason, and intervention by members of Congress is precisely what our representatives love to do as part of “constituent services” all the time. Maybe individual faculty shouldn’t be calling in favors from Rep. Michael Capuano (Cambridge’s U.S. representative), but MIT’s priorities would be in the wrong place if it refused to use its Washington lobbying office to help returning students get back to school.

Finally, we are simply dumfounded that it is apparently impossible for international students with certain kinds of visas to go abroad for academic conferences. Is there no way students could pre-apply for a re-entry visa before actually voyaging abroad, instead of the current system, where Iranian students traveling to a four-day conference in Paris have to fear that they might end up stuck in France for months, while their visa applications are inexplicably delayed? MIT and other schools should use their influence to work something out with the government to cure what seems like a ridiculous law-school toy paradox, except real.

The federal immigration bureaucracy is a hopelessly convoluted and frighteningly arbitrary system, made even more so by the tightening of policy in the wake of Sept. 11. International students should not have to navigate this strange morass -- a nadir of good government -- on their own. MIT should help them, and the measures we propose would go a ways toward alleviating the uncertainty these students face. There are plenty of reasons you might feel like you can’t go home again, but fear of the U.S. government shouldn’t be one of them.