387. "Student Visa Crackdown Won't Keep America Safe." USA Today (May 22, 2002) p. 12A.
If the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) thinks it can largely curtail the nation's terrorism problems by focusing on college students, we all should worry.
Sure, one of the Sept. 11 hijackers entered the USA on a student visa, and two others infamously received theirs months after they had attacked the World Trade Center, thanks largely to what a report released Monday called "widespread failure" by the INS.
"The INS's foreign student program historically has been dysfunctional, and the INS has acknowledged for several years that it does not know how many foreign students are in the United States," the Justice Department inspector general's report said.
But that doesn't mean that closer tracking of foreign students - only 2% of temporary visa holders - will safeguard the nation.
Under the system the INS plans to set up by July 1, the agency will record the names of students who obtained visas and when they entered the country. Colleges then are expected to report to the government whether these students show up and if they drop out. Thus, a student who entered the USA to take English Lit courses in California would be caught if he is, say, taking flying lessons in Florida.
College kids elude tracking
But anyone who has contact with college students, whom I've spent 40 years teaching, knows a simple truth: There is no more freewheeling and independent a life. Consider, for starters, summer breaks. You can be a compliant, sterling student and still spend three months elsewhere doing God knows what.
And even full-time students have lax schedules. In many colleges, a student can maintain good standing by taking a few courses, but still spend eight hours or more daily elsewhere. Nor is there anything in the system to prevent a terrorist from registering in a college with lax requirements that is close to a nuclear plant, harbor or other possible terrorist target.
In short, a more open sieve would be hard to design.
The INS also assumes that a college will diligently report, within 24 hours, changes in a student's status. But colleges are likely to drag their feet because, as they see it, the system requires them to "spy" on students; it puts them in the position of acting as agents of the government and "spoils" the nurturing relationships their staff should have with foreign students. Also, colleges fear losing some of their best-paying customers: students from overseas, especially from oil-rich Arab countries.
If the USA is serious about securing its borders from terrorists, it would do what many other democracies do: require people to carry an ID card.
A card-carrying habit
Identification cards already are required here for most persons to enter their workplace, take an airplane flight or go into a public building, including my campus library. The idea of a national ID, however, was knocked out of earlier drafts of legislation by a coalition of civil libertarian and Hispanic groups, who opposed a requirement that all non-citizens carry identifying documents. To some degree, they have a point.
We must face the fact - and benefit from realizing - that no one can drive, or fly, or enter many private and public buildings without a picture ID, usually a driver's license or passport. That means that practically all Americans already must have what in effect is a national ID card. If we just make those more reliable (readily done in the age of biometrics), we could easily check, say at an airport, whether a person is legally in this country or wanted by authorities.
Such an approach would avoid a major valid concern of civil libertarians and immigrant lobbies: that people who look like foreigners will be discriminated against by being asked to identify themselves, while others will not be.
We already routinely screen people. If we would just make good use of the national ID cards we have - and improve them - we could enhance our safety, avoid discrimination and not spend millions on another system. Students then would be tracked like everybody else - without depending on colleges' good graces.
Amitai Etzioni, author of The Limits of Privacy, teaches at George Washington University. He is a member of the USA TODAY board of contributors.