Missing students stir visa worries

College leaders fear disappearance of Egyptians may affect foreign admissions


The nationwide manhunt for a group of Egyptian undergraduates who disappeared this week after entering the United States on student visas has higher education officials concerned that a long-awaited increase in foreign student enrollment might reverse again, as it did in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Authorities said yesterday that they arrested one of the 11 Egyptians in Minneapolis, and in New Jersey two others turned themselves in. The FBI and immigration officials are continuing to search for the other eight men. All 11 failed to show up for a one-month academic program at Montana State University.

News of the arrests came as a new study reported a 12 percent increase in admissions of foreign students to U.S. graduate programs, where half of international students are enrolled.

"International students are in general very, very frightened of the system, and they're constantly worried that they'll do some little thing that's wrong and they'll be deported. And I can only imagine that this episode will make it worse," said Eaton Lattman, dean of research and graduate education at the Johns Hopkins University School of Arts and Sciences.

"That really is the worry," agreed Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, the association that produced the survey that showed an increase in foreign student applications and admissions for the first time since Sept. 11, 2001.

"In some ways, [the search for the Egyptian students] is good news that the system works," she said. "This is exactly what's supposed to happen when students don't show up. The government is supposed to be notified."

"On the other hand," added Stewart, "we lost applications and absolute enrollment fairly dramatically after 9/11, in response to the fairly draconian transformation in visa policy and its implementation. And anything that's done that signals that [foreign] students are not welcome is not supportive of our goal."

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, colleges and universities have been required to keep strict tabs on their foreign students using a computer network known as SEVIS, which is managed by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The colleges give it regular reports listing their foreign students and their U.S. addresses.

There are nearly 1 million foreign students registered in the SEVIS tracking system, according to the immigration agency. Foreign citizens make up about half of engineering graduate students in the U.S. and are well represented in the physical sciences and research-intensive fields.

Many graduate programs actively seek foreign applicants because such students are regarded as highly motivated and well prepared for advanced study.

A healthy influx of foreign students is critical to America's ability to compete globally, said Valerie Woolston, who manages international student recruitment and immigration at the University of Maryland, College Park. National security interests need to be balanced with "intellectual security," she said.

Yesterday, some students expressed anger that the conduct of 11 men could create problems for all foreign students.

"These Egyptian students hurt a lot of people who come here with the best intention and only want to do their work and nothing else," said Marius Stan, a philosophy graduate student at Hopkins from Romania. "I'm kind of upset by this. I hope the INS doesn't overreach and decide to crack down on all of us just because of 11 crazy students who decided to go under the radar."

Despite their concern, many university officials weren't faulting the government for setting out to find the missing Egyptians.

"I don't see this is as an overreaction," said national security expert Steven David, a vice dean at Hopkins, where 50 percent of graduate engineering students and 35 percent of medical students are foreigners.

"It seems to me to be a prudent act for a country that is still worried about a repeat of 9/11 and wants to be sure that promises made to visa officials are met," David said. "America has an interest in determining who comes into our country. And furthermore, there are some nationalities that are going to raise some more suspicion than others. This is unfortunate but understandable."

Federal officials have stressed that they have no reason to believe the missing Egyptian students pose a national security threat, but the specter of Sept. 11 has loomed large in the investigation because the hijackers in 2001 were also from the Middle East, and several had or were applying to get student visas.

The year of the attack was also a historical high of foreign students in the United States, said Stewart, but their numbers dropped precipitously in later years because of stricter visa rules that required, among other things, that all visa applicants be interviewed in their home countries by American officials.

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