The Foreign Student as Terrorist

 When his own stepson can't get a student visa, Terry Caesar wonders about the future of foreign students in the U.S.
January 14, 2005

The other day my Brazilian stepson was refused a student visa to study in the United States. Why? Section 212-B on the consular checklist: suspicion of intention to emigrate.

Daniel's stated academic purposes -- to study international business, in English -- were dismissed out of hand, as well as his familial ties (three sisters, a father, numerous relatives) to his own country. The I-20 form issued by St. Mary's University? Irrelevant. The American citizenship of his mother? At once beside the point and further grounds for suspicion.

Worst of all, Daniel just turned 24. In the actual halls of American embassies and consulates these days, he may as well have chanted from the Koran while waiting for his consular interview. These interviews are standard procedure now. 9/11 has been responsible for great changes in the process by which students from abroad can receive visas. These changes, in turn, are the sole reason usually given for the fact that, although some 580,000 foreign students study at American universities, applications are down 28 percent the past year and actual enrollment fell 6 percent.

Is this decline justified? Who can say if there are in fact more foreign terrorists afoot? To consider merely the starting point of visa approval: all cases finally must be judged individually. An individual must demonstrate an acceptable level of family or sponsor income, a compelling or enduring relation to his or her own country, and so on.

Among the rules is that their application is particular to each case, and in particular cases there are no rules, except the judgment of the individual consular officer. This situation never made logical -- as opposed to procedural -- sense. Today, in a heightened political atmosphere, it makes for grotesque results. American consular decisions about who is and is not deemed acceptable to study in the United States should by now be a national scandal, if they could be known. Trouble is, there is no way to study the choices individuals are making.

In recent years, the results of the scandal have only become known once -- and once was enough. Were the specific consular officials (almost all in Saudi Arabia) who were responsible for approving student visas for the 9/11 terrorists ever subject to some discipline? Nothing I have ever heard or read indicates that they were. The 9/11 Commission Report is silent on the matter.

Once, the assessment of student visa applications worldwide had undoubtedly grown too lax; according to the report, a security group led by Richard Clark proposed a tighter review of student visa procedures six months before 9/11. Now, however, the procedures have grown too rigid. Anyone who has anything to do with foreign students at American colleges knows stories of flagrant senselessness, not to say injustice, similar to my stepson's.

The day I learned of his fate, I called the office of my congressman to request a letter of inquiry to the Sao Paulo Consulate. The staff person who answered was working on another such letter on behalf of another anguished family. No matter his I-20 was in order and all the rest, including an airline ticket; once the son admitted having no particular reason to return to England, the consular officer at the London Embassy sent him packing.

I thought of the other two foreign students I know best at present. One is from South America. She's been studying here for two years. Her father is an executive with a multinational. Her family hasn't lived in their native country for many years. How had she gotten a visa?

The other student is from the Middle East. Again, he's been here for two years. His father is a Protestant minister. The family doesn't want him to return because he might get swept up in regional violence. Although it might be easier to understand how he got a student visa, why had the possibility that he either might not be able to or might not want to return been a more decisive factor in the decision to give him one?

How much resonance does a single life possess? Virtually none, if there is no way to marshal or represent it in some collective fashion? And insofar as the consular processing of foreign students by the United States is concerned, there is no way. The Americans can't listen to what one of these students might protest, when rejected.

Indeed, the Americans don't even care. Their decisions in each case are immediate and irrevocable. The consular interview is not a dialogue. Officials don't have to justify themselves to those whom they judge.

If one could compare the cases of the students from all over the world who have been awarded visas during the past year with those of the students who have been denied them, would it finally become impossible to tell the difference between the two groups? The system lacks either administrative or conceptual space for such a survey. Meanwhile, the same system has acquired a quite specific, remorseless political character.

In a very real sense, the process by which prospective students are evaluated in American consulates and embassies today becomes a continuation of the war in Iraq by other means. It doesn't matter what anybody thinks of us. What matters is our own safety as a nation.

Granted, we still presume to act decently, not to say, democratically, toward the native population, who can be expected, in turn, to admire our ideals. Trouble is, this population is dangerous. It contains too many "elements" whose motives we have every reason to suspect. So best to encounter everybody fully equipped and fully armored.

If we make mistakes, well, it can't be helped. There's a war on. We can only hope that more individuals benefit from contact with our ideals than suffer from experience with our determination to inflict them. Meanwhile, at the present time, what reasonable expectation can any one foreign student have who might want to study in this county?

The thousands of these students in the United States can speak for themselves on this point. My concern is with the thousands who will never be able to study here, and who cannot speak.

I haven't asked Daniel what he would say. He's still too shocked at his rejection. He knows his room was ready in our house and his tuition taken care of at his prospective university. If he knew how eager his mother was to cook a Christmas turkey for him that she couldn't resist buying weeks ago, he would weep for the waste. It's not his alone.

It's the waste of hundreds and even thousands of prospective students all over the world. Too many are now virtually mandated to be summarily rejected by whim or fiat. From an impossible global view, they accumulate like so many victims.

In this context, there is one astounding statistic embedded in the 9/11 Commission Report. One would think from current consular mandates that most of those whom the commission identifies as the 13 "muscle hijackers" (who actually boarded the planes) entered the United States on the basis of foreign student visas. In fact, only two did! It is in the name of these two that current student visa policies are being driven -- and there is something more. "All of the hijackers whose visa applications we reviewed," the report concludes, "could have been denied because their applications were not filled out completely." In effect, American consular offices across the earth have now substituted denial for acceptance, with no more justice to the applicants, and even less faith in the consequences.

The promise of America! Some foreign students may still believe in it, insofar as reflected in American higher education. But as post-9/11, War-on-Terrorism students from Brazil to China discover that this ideal has first to be tested by the cynicism of American diplomacy, the promise is going to seem hollow. It may already have become so. Since Americans can't ask rejected foreign students (now assessed the unrefundable cost of a visa before they learn if they receive it!) we can ask the foreign students among us. How politicized has their own study come to be? How did they survive their first consular contact?  

More to the present point, how much do they feel they and their fellow students are already being converted not so much into potential immigrants as into terrorists?


Terry Caesar is an adjunct professor at San Antonio College. He is the author or co-editor of seven books, including three on academic life, the most recent being Traveling though the Boondocks.


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