W A S H I N G T O N, Oct. 10, 2001 -- For suspected terrorist Hani Hanjour, entering the United States was as easy as applying for a student visa to study English at a Berlitz course taught on the campus of Holy Names College in Oakland, Calif.
But Hanjour never showed up for class and until he was listed as one of the Sept. 11 suicide pilots, the federal government had no idea he was roaming freely throughout the United States.
The Sept. 11 attacks have raised concerns about America's student visa program, exposing weaknesses and loopholes in the system.
"Getting a student visa is a way to get your foot in the door of the United States for whatever purposes you might have, if you want to be a terrorist or if you want to immigrate to the United States," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank that seeks greater restrictions on immigration.
"We've got a deeply flawed system and we've got no accountability," said Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif. "You can have a lot of these students not showing up at the university and no one would know that."
That's because there is no centralized tracking system with even basic information for the half-million foreigners who enter the United States on student visas each year. Lawmakers such as Feinstein are proposing changes to close loopholes in the system.
Proposed Changes in System
First, they want stricter background checks before visas are granted. Visa officers often spend only two or three minutes reviewing an applicant's eligibility to enter the United States, checking their name against watch lists that are often incomplete or out of date.
"It is almost guaranteed that bad guys are going to get through," Krikorian said. "It is probably most important to deny visas in the first place to people who then might become a problem. Once we let somebody in it is just much harder to deal with them than simply keeping them out in the first place."
Students who are granted visas and allowed to enter the United States would be closely monitored under changes proposed in Congress.
A computerized tracking program is already being used in two dozen American schools and will likely be expanded. Fingerprints and photographs would be kept for all student visa holders and colleges and universities would have to make quarterly reports listing addresses, disciplinary actions and even the courses foreign students are taking.
The concern is that students would enter the country to pursue one course of study and then change their major upon arrival to study more sensitive subjects like nuclear physics or biochemistry.
"I don't think the U.S. should be providing the higher education for somebody who's going to go back and run the nuclear program in a country like Iraq or head the Hamas somewhere else and use what they learned in this country against us," said Feinstein.
Some lawmakers are even considering a ban on all student visas from countries that sponsor terrorism. Between 1999 and 2000 the federal government issued more than 3,000 visas to students from nations on the United State's terrorism watch list.
"I have some concern about why we want to educate people from countries that sponsor terrorism, that provide money, that aid and abet, that provide support for terrorists," Feinstein said.
Would It Stigmatize Foreign Students?
There are concerns among officials at American colleges and universities that a national tracking system could stigmatize international students, especially those from the Middle East.
"I think it could easily lead to issues of racial profiling," said Fanta Aw, director of international student services at American University in Washington, D.C. "They would be presumed guilty and then they would have to prove that they are innocent and that is not what the American justice system is about."
"I would really feel uncomfortable having, you know, a special kind of ID just because I am international," said Mario Landivar, who received a student visa from Bolivia to study public relations at American University. "I wouldn't feel at home and you know that's how the university should make you feel,"
Higher education officials are also worried that changes in the system will send an unwelcome message to international students. That is a particular concern since American colleges and universities aggressively court foreign students who rarely rely on financial aid and often peruse study in scientific and technical fields in which American student interest has been dwindling.
"The message right now, abroad is foreign nationals are not welcome, most specifically foreign students are not welcome," Aw said.
This is not the first time weaknesses in the student visa program have been exposed. Lawmakers first discussed these changes after learning that a terrorist in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing remained in the United States for years on an expired student visa.
But proposals that once languished have been fast-tracked with the hope that simple record keeping could perhaps save lives.