WASHINGTON — Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wants to close U.S. borders to new foreign students for six months to give immigration authorities time to put in place initial background checks and a tracking system once students are in this country.
The proposal was prompted by the discovery that a suspected hijacker in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks entered the country with a student visa. Hani Hanjour, suspected of being on the airliner that crashed into the Pentagon, said he would study English at Holy Names College in Oakland, Calif., but never enrolled.
“I know this isn’t politically correct, but what has happened ... indicates I think serious caution is a prudent thing on our part,” Feinstein said in an interview Wednesday.
Feinstein, who plans to introduce her proposal in coming weeks, would suspend student visas for six months while the Immigration and Naturalization Service readied a system of performing background checks on applicants for student visas.
Foreign students apply to U.S. schools from their home countries, then go to the nearest U.S. consulate or embassy to apply for a visa. The State Department decides whether a visa should be issued, but Feinstein said it is crucial to have INS involved in the screening process.
Her legislation also will call for giving the INS $32.3 million for a computerized monitoring system to track foreign students once they are in the country. The system would apply to the nearly 600,000 foreign students at U.S. colleges and universities.
Congress authorized such a database in response to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. But the program languished amid political opposition and remains only a pilot project involving 25 schools in the Southeast.
The database program, which is supposed to be fully operational by 2003, would require schools to report any change in a foreign student’s status, such as enrollment, change of major or a move to a new address.
“Our country is a sieve,” Feinstein said. “These visas are being misused and the time has come to do something about it.”
The University of Southern California, New York University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have the highest number of foreign students, according to the American Council on Education. Its members include most accredited American colleges and universities.
David Ward, the council’s president, said he opposes a suspension of visas, but supports a tracking system and stepped-up screening of visa applicants.
“Our view would be that since student visas are only 2 percent of the total, it really isn’t solving the security problem,” Ward said. “People can come as visitors and in many other ways.”
Ward said similar legislation proposed by Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., would tighten screening and hold institutions more accountable for their foreign students without shutting down the visa program.
Meanwhile, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said Wednesday she would propose legislation to bring back the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration to aid the battered travel industry in attracting foreign visitors to the United States. The Republican-led Congress abolished the agency and its $16 million annual budget in 1996.