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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, November 11, 2001

Foreign students must not be singled out

Given the current world climate, it is understandable that the federal government has decided to increase its monitoring of foreign nationals studying in this country.

The fact that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had to subpoena records concerning such students from local colleges suggests the existing system of monitoring was loose and ineffective.

But one has to wonder what the long-term purpose of this new burst of record-keeping will accomplish. It is apparently spurred by the fact that some of the alleged hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks were in the country on student visas.

But most of the attackers were here legally on tourist visas or entered the country in other ways. So even if we have excellent tabs on one set of foreign visitors, we might have less focused control on others.

The larger issue, however, is what these newly updated records will be used for. At the moment, the purpose seems relatively benign. The schools will offer up a list of students. The INS will cross-check that list against its list of those who came in with student visas. Mismatches will be tracked down, and proceedings will begin for those out of status.

The problem here is that this one very narrow group of foreign nationals will receive attention out of proportion to their overall threat (if such a word can be used) to our national security status.

There are untold thousands of foreigners within our borders today, many of them without the proper paperwork. They form the backbone of much of the entry-level workforce in major cities and in agricultural areas.

How will it be possible to treat this vast universe of people with anything approaching fairness? It may turn out that students — because they are visible and relatively well-documented — will be up for more INS attention than is warranted.

Clearly, our awareness of security needs is far different today than it was before Sept. 11. Thus extra vigilance and extra attention is important.

Foreign scholars can expect to get more than their share of that attention. In the process, we must be extremely careful not to disrupt or frighten off these important visitors to our shores.