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Foreign Visitors, Students Welcome Despite Tighter Visa Controls, Terrorists Are the Focus of Stricter Safeguards

BG0114E | Date: 2001-11-09

By Jane A. Morse, senior staff writer
The Washington File

Washington -- Foreign visitors remain welcome in the United States to vacation, study and work, despite U.S. efforts to implement tougher visa controls in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"We welcome legal immigrants and we welcome people coming to America," President George Bush said October 29. "What we don't welcome are people who come to hurt the American people. And, so, therefore, we're going to be very diligent with our visas and observant with the people who come to this country."

Procedures for granting visas are under scrutiny because, of the identified terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, at least one was in the United States on a student visa and a number of others were using short-term business or tourist visas. Of additional concern to American officials is the fact that foreign students in the United States are not adequately monitored, a situation they hope to soon rectify.

For example, the Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), when fully operational, will enable colleges and universities to report to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) information on those international students who are accepted for enrollment but who do not attend classes or who transfer to other schools. Currently, there are about 74,000 U.S. schools certified by the INS to accept foreign students.

According to the State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, more than 7.1 million non-immigrant visas were issued to foreign visitors in 2000; of that, more than 500,000 were granted to students and exchange visitors.

Although some members of the U.S. Congress are proposing a moratorium on issuing student visas, Bush administration officials oppose such an action.

"I think a moratorium is a very bad mistake," Mary Ryan, assistant secretary for Consular Affairs at the U.S. State Department, told the House Select Education Subcommittee and 21st Century Competitiveness Subcommittee during a hearing October 21. "It is very good for foreigners to be exposed to our principles, our values and our ideals."

At the same hearing, Michael Becraft, acting deputy INS commissioner, echoed Ryan's sentiments when he noted, "There is no better way to teach democracy than to have foreign students experience it for themselves, and then to take those important values back home with them."

"It has been said that after September 11, everything has changed," Becraft said. "I hope, and I'm sure we all hope, that that is not true. America must remain America, a symbol of freedom and a beacon of hope to those who seek a better life for themselves. We must increase our security and improve our systems, but in doing so we must not forget what made this nation great: our openness to new ideas and new people and a commitment to individual freedom, shared values, innovation and the free market."

Nonetheless, in an effort to keep evildoers out of the United States, tighter restrictions on issuing visas will be imposed under the newly enacted USA Patriots Act. Aliens are inadmissible if they represent or support terrorist organizations, or if they are suspected of engaging in or providing material support for terrorist activity.

There are 28 groups designated by the Secretary of State as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). In a written statement released November 2, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said that although the current focus of the campaign against terrorism is the elimination of the al-Qaida terrorist network, "we will not rest until every terrorist group has been removed as a threat to the United States, our citizens, our interests, and our friends and allies."

Boucher said the FTO list will expand as U.S. authorities identify and confirm additional entities that provide financial and other support to terrorists.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, who directs the Justice Department, which is tasked with enforcing U.S. laws, vowed to aggressively fight in the "war on terror."

During a press briefing October 31, Ashcroft said, "America will not allow terrorists to use our hospitality as a weapon against us."

The Justice Department, he said, "will prevent aliens who engage in or support terrorist activity from entering our country. We will detain, prosecute, deport terrorist aliens who are already inside the nation's borders."

Appearing with Ashcroft at the October 31 briefing, INS Commissioner James Ziglar noted that additional personnel and enhanced technology will be applied to allow quick dissemination of information about suspect individuals to law enforcement agencies.

The broader powers allowed under the U.S.A. Patriot Act, Ziglar said, will be exercised by the INS "in a very careful manner in order to protect our cherished liberties." He added, "what we're dealing with here is not immigration; we're dealing with evil. Immigrants are not terrorists."

In his remarks to the press October 29, President Bush acknowledged, "the vast majority of people who have come to America are really good, decent people; people we're proud to have here."

But he added, "There are some who are evil. And our job now is to find the evil ones and bring them to justice; to disrupt anybody who might have designs on hurting (or) further hurting Americans."