Supporting International Students: The Shrinking Welcoming Mat

In the institutional hierarchies of U.S. higher learning, graduate and professional students belong to the least influential of political groups. Still, many are active in institutional governance and spend long hours working with faculty and administrators to improve student life. While their obstacles, in struggles against tuition increases or for the right to bargain collectively, are enormous, the hurdles to supporting international students are often even higher. Right now, key decisions affecting the well-being of the more than 500,000 foreign students in the United States are being made in the nation?s capital. These decisions are seemingly out of reach for student representatives acting on the local and state level around the country.

In the aftermath of 11 September, legislators have rightfully attempted to boost security. In their rush, lawmakers have introduced stringent legislation, and law enforcement agencies have begun a frenzy of activities to prevent further attacks. The unfortunate consequence of these actions for thousands of foreign students, especially those from the Middle East, has been fear and reason to leave the United States. Random "interviews" of students conducted by the FBI sent shock waves through the international student community. Students with expired visas who were enrolled in degree programs suddenly faced the prospect of indefinite detention and deportation. The media is increasingly representing today?s innocent foreign students as tomorrow?s terrorists. All of these developments complicate student advocacy work on behalf of international students--but they also turn it into the most urgent of endeavors.

The Broader Issues

In December , the House passed the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2001, H.R. 3525 (searchable here), which increases restrictions on visas for students from countries construed as "sponsors of terror." Students from these countries--nearly 20 at last count--will be permitted visas only by way of personal exceptions. In April 2002, the Senate passed this bill with few amendments. It is likely to end up on the president?s desk to be signed into law later this summer. Both the House and the Senate bills demonstrate a move away from earlier, more draconian attempts to enact a moratorium on issuing student visas.

Sponsors of the House bill also pushed for a speedier solution to the problem of developing a system to monitor international students. Although President George W. Bush embraced this system in the USA Patriot Act of 2001, its origins date back to the Clinton years. The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), as it is now known, is supposed to be up and running by 2003. It requires the nations? colleges and universities to supply the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) with broad information about a student?s status and performance. Although the federal government agreed to pay the start-up costs, it is not clear who will pick up the bill for maintaining the system. Proposals include a hefty fee increase for prospective foreign students.

INS demonstrated its weaknesses rather starkly with its chilling issuance of student visas for two of the 11 September hijackers in March 2002. The ensuing criticism has revived elements of an earlier House bill that proposes splitting the INS into one service-oriented agency (for visas and so on) and another border-enforcement agency. In a surprise move, following intense pressure from Congress and the media, the White House announced in late April 2002 that it was retreating from implementing its own, less sweeping restructuring plan. While embracing the House bill, the White House now seeks to amend it and further strengthen the INS?s "enforcement culture." An effective overhaul of the agency?s service-oriented sections based on sufficient funds and personnel may, therefore, still be jeopardized. These sections have earned the agency a negative reputation for losing applications by prospective permanent residents or immigrants, issuing contradictory information, and having ever-increasing waiting periods for the simplest of procedures. These hardships have become the norm rather than an exception.

Lobbying with NAGPS

Most higher education lobbying is done by organizations such as the American Council on Education (ACE), the Association of American Universities, and--with a more specific focus on international aspects-- NAFSA: The Association of International Educators. Although their work frequently benefits graduate and professional students, it often does not fully represent legitimate students concerns.

Since 1986, the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students (NAGPS) has been advocating for graduate and professional student needs. NAGPS has 200 member graduate student associations and affiliates, representing more than 1 million students. In 1997, NAGPS began to systematically lobby the U.S. Congress and executive branch. NAGPS activists worked, for instance, to prevent Congress from taxing tuition wavers. The organization?s D.C.-based staff, of which I am a member, plays a key role in arranging meetings with the staffs of national representatives and senators. This is important, because in the U.S. political system, where elected officials closely measure constituent feedback, meetings with real people are much more effective than letter or phone campaigns. In 2002, given recent developments, NAGPS members identified foreign student issues as a key topic and, in mid-February, took it to "the Hill."

Limits and Opportunities of Student Lobbyists

In contrast to more powerful interest groups, student lobbyists often lack political clout. During the 2002 visit, for instance, the legislative director for Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) asked why we didn?t leave the lobbying to our universities. Staffers in this office appeared wholly unaware that student interests can be separate from and often opposed to those advocated by university administrators. In contrast, a legislative assistant in the office of Senator John Edwards (D-NC) signaled full support for the NAGPS legislative platform and backed our argument that the federal government should bear the costs for SEVIS.

Student lobbyists experience only moderate successes--in part due to a lack of resources. Nonetheless, we have played an important role in bringing previously neglected issues to the attention of Congress. I was struck, for example, that there seemed to be no awareness of the disastrous child-care situation on U.S. campuses.

It is crucial to find a language for describing graduate and professional student needs that congressional aides and elected officials can understand. To take stringent measures against foreign students and drive them away works against the best interests of the United States: For example, the "war on terrorism" has demonstrated a striking lack of cultural competency that can be gained in exchanges with foreign students and scholars. Moreover, student lobbyists have to find allies both inside and outside of the student community. For this reason, NAGPS has intensified its cooperation with other organizations such as NAFSA and joined an initiative for INS reform spearheaded by ACE.

Graduate and professional students lack substantial political influence. Nonetheless, they can have some influence and their voices can be heard if they collectively lobby Congress. And to come to the aid of their international colleagues and friends is a large step on the way toward democratizing the U.S. educational system.

Thomas Pegelow is chair of the International Students Concerns Committee of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students. He invites reader comments on this article.

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