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Student visa issue stirs debate.

WASHINGTON -- In an effort to bar terrorists from exploiting student visas, Congress recently proposed legislation revising student visa laws, and the president launched a task force to examine the student visa system. Both measures have prompted concern among higher education groups -- including community colleges -- about the effect reforms might have on foreign student enrollment.

"If we wish to increase international understanding, we ought to increase the opportunities for students from other countries to study in the United States," said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education. But to acknowledge security as a top priority, ACE and other education groups are offering alternative reforms to those on Capitol Hill.

One particular source of concern was a plan from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., urging a six-month moratorium on new student visas. Feinstein abandoned that proposal after higher education groups rallied against it. But she is still calling for major reforms.

"The foreign student visa program is one of the most unregulated and exploited visa categories," Feinstein said. Her latest proposal calls for a variety of alterations to the system, including the forbidding of student visas to individuals from countries included on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist-sponsoring states.

In response to congressional legislation, college leaders are offering their own plans to improve the system while still encouraging colleges to enroll foreign students.

"We're concerned about any move that would lengthen the [visa] process," said Jim Hermes, legislative associate at the American Association of Community Colleges. According to Hermes, about 20 percent of foreign students studying in the United States. About 100,000 individuals attend community colleges.

Two-year colleges in and around Washington, D.C., as well as those in Florida and California, are among those with the largest international student populations, Hermes said. U.S. colleges and universities also value international outreach programs to help them recruit foreign scholars for faculty posts.

Community colleges and four-year institutions are already required to keep extensive records of foreign students and make that information available to the government, according to Ward.

Aside from the prospect of visa delays, another major issue for colleges is the proposed Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, an electronic tracking system for foreign students. Once operational, the system would enable colleges to notify the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service about changes in a student's visa status or address.

But the heated debate about who should pay for the system seems likely to stay a sticking point. The INS wants foreign students to pay for the system through fees, something colleges say is problematic. One option initially proposed under a fee-based system called for colleges to collect the money, something higher education institutions strongly oppose.

Colleges should not serve as "bill collectors for the federal government," Ward said.

There currently are two proposals to reform the student visa system: one from Feinstein and another from higher education organizations, including ACE and AACC.

The plan proposed by the organizations would impose a 30-day delay in processing visas for students from countries on the State Department's watch list of nations supporting terrorist organizations. U.S. consulates would conduct more extensive background checks on student visa applicants from these nations. Colleges also would report to the INS within 30 days any foreign student who does not show up at an institution. The plan also suggests that the federal government provide complete funding for the electronic tracking system.

Under Feinstein's initiative, the INS would conduct background checks on students before they receive visas. Colleges would report to the government quarterly about students' academic status, courses taken and any disciplinary action they may have faced on campus. Feinstein also would allocate $32 million in federal funds to complete implementation of the electronic tracking system.
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Author:Dervarics, Charles
Publication:Community College Week
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 12, 2001
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