THE U.S. IMMIGRATION and Naturalization Service, historically a laggard in tracking the nearly 1 million foreigners with American student visas, now has the opportunity to do so efficiently - if it can resist playing Big Brother.
Yesterday, the INS formally introduced a $37 million tracking system that requires thousands of colleges, universities and trade schools to submit data on foreign students, what they're studying, how long they've been in the United States and when their visas expire.
For years the INS has failed to keep track of these students. The Chicago Tribune tried to track down 30 schools authorized to enroll foreign students. Only one could be found at the listed address. The biggest problem is that many foreign students disappear before their visas expire.
Colleges and trade schools are singled out for good reason. Two of the 9/11 terrorists entered the country on student visas and several were enrolled at American flight schools. And the driver of the van carrying the explosives used in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center entered the country on a student visa and stayed for years after it expired.
Schools have tried hard to meet the Jan. 30 deadline for transmitting foreign student data to the INS. There have been numerous glitches. A Johns Hopkins University official said one transaction took three days to complete. But the stakes are high for universities. If it fails to cooperate, Hopkins could lose authorization to enroll 4,000 foreign students on its five campuses.
Many critics, remembering the communist witch hunts of the 1950s, fear overzealousness on the part of federal authorities. A recent report that the FBI has enlisted campus police officers at dozens of schools, in some cases giving them security clearances and access to classified information, has only heightened fears of Big Brother.
Universities should be in the business of education, not policing.
Another potential abuse raising concern on campuses was the subject of much consternation at this week's Philadelphia convention of the American Library Association. The USA PATRIOT Act gives the FBI new powers to look at library records and computer hard drives to see what books patrons have checked out, what Web pages they've visited and where they've sent e-mails. ALA president Maurice J. Freedman says the next step might be hidden cameras filming library patrons in the act of reading.
It's reasonable for the government to know where foreign students are and what they're doing academically. Most countries require at least as much of visiting scholars, including those from the United States. International students are valuable contributors to any campus, and the vast majority, of course, are not terrorists.
In complying with the law, campuses are protecting assets, but their police forces and records offices, apparently now deputized with a homeland security role, will be trusted only if they take to heart John F. Kennedy's advice: "Let our patriotism be reflected in the creation of confidence rather than crusades of suspicion."