Fear and the Foreign Student

Over the past five decades, our American civilization has spent more on the military and on incarceration than on health care and education. Our shoddy commitment to education has meant that our undergraduates, for example, get their education from under-paid adjunct or part-time teachers as well as graduate students rather than from full-time teachers. As budgets are skewed toward war, the gun-sights of the accountants focus on education.

Among the graduate student-teachers, a very high percentage are international or foreign students. In the sciences, a full third of the graduate-teachers are not US nationals. At UMASS-Amherst, over a thousand international graduate students teach in the labs and run the introductory classes – in essence, they make UMASS happen. So, why has the government been treating these crucial workers as potential terror threats?

Congress passed the 1996 anti-immigration act that set in place a surveillance system to track students (called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, SEVIS). Congress and the President used the tragedy of 9/11 to demand the implementation of SEVIS in 2003, to insist that the graduate-teachers submit themselves to excessive scrutiny. The government’s only reason given is 9/11: that is sufficient. If you say “9/11,” then no further argument is needed. SEVIS will prevent another 9/11, case closed.

Yang Wang, a Stanford graduate-teacher in the civil and environmental engineering department who is currently stuck in China because he can’t get a return visa into the US, is not silent. “I fully understand that after the devastating 9/11 terrorist attack, the visa background check is a necessary procedure to ensure US security interests. But I feel we are being made the scapegoat for the attack. This is totally unfair. A check system must be efficient to be effective. A system that wastes its resources on innocent students like me would never be able to focus on the true threats to the US and would never serve its security interests well.”

The SEVIS system, as well as the other new checks on foreign students, is not only inefficient, but it places an enormous burden on graduate-teachers. Colleges must report the private details of the international students by the Internet to the government: if they fail to comply with the SEVIS demands, not only is the student deported without an appeal, but the college may lose its authorization to enroll international students.

The federal government has put the screws on colleges: there is no give. Frank Hugus, Director of International Programs at UMASS, says, “Our hands are tied. We have to make sure we are in compliance. We are caught between being advocates for students and being forced to comply with regulations that in some cases really seem excessive.”

The students do, however, see two areas where UMASS (and other colleges) can refuse and resist the government’s demands: in the way it raises money to administer the program, and in the attitude it takes toward the program. A well-attended protest organized by the Graduate Employees Union (GEO) at UMASS on December 11, 2003 laid out the issues clearly.

The scandal of SEVIS is that international students are being made to pay a “service” fee to administer the system. The government will soon levy a $100 fee, while colleges will charge an unspecified sum for administrative purposes. At UMASS, the fee is $65, a part of which will fund SEVIS.

“This is not a service,” says Ibrahim Dahlstrom-Hakki, secretary treasurer of the GEO. “It should not be called a service. It is outrageous to charge me to pay for my own surveillance.” Why should international students pay the surveillance tax alone? As Dahlstrom-Hakki puts it, the surveillance tax discriminates against international students. There is a federal mandate for diversity and for equality of access, but the administration does not charge students of color or students with disabilities a special fee. All students contribute financially to make the campus more diverse. All students, therefore, should pay the surveillance fee.

Anders Jonsson, a UMASS international student and GEO labor and contract educator, has spoken to many students and student organizations across campus about the issue. He reports widespread support for the demand that all students must pay the fee. According to Jonsson, UMASS asked international students to pay the fee because it takes a long time to initiate a new student fee and because of budget cuts. “UMASS is balancing its budget on the backs of the international students,” he said. SEVIS, he continued, “should be paid for by all the students.”

The faculty union is in the students’ corner. Professor Paula Chakravarty of the Communications Department says that the fight over SEVIS is only one piece of the onslaught on the Bill of Rights. The issue, she says, is about “intellectual freedom on campus, about the creation of a productive intellectual community that is diverse.” The faculty resolution supports GEO’s position on the surveillance tax: it should not be borne only by the international students.

Several international students have bravely decided not to pay the fee. “I’m not going to pay the fee,” said Zixul Liu at the demonstration. “I’m willing to take this as far as I can.” Across the country, international students are with Liu, but again the costs of harassment and deportation will be borne by them alone. At Madison, Wisconsin, the general student body held strong protests against the SEVIS system: their struggle forced the administration to fund SEVIS from the budget instead of with a surveillance tax. SEVIS continues at Madison, but at least all students must now bear the costs for this outrageous measure.

At UMASS, the students are as incensed, but the administration has not moved. The City of Amherst voted against the Patriot Act, but UMASS has been silent. UMASS has issued no public condemnation of the climate of fear created for international students. It has offered no defense of international students’ rights to speech and association. Certainly, there is no public statement from UMASS of sharing the burden of the SEVIS fee. Dahlstrom-Hakki reports that GEO asked UMASS to make a public comment against these measures, but “UMASS has done nothing to support international students. We expect them to speak out, to say we stand against the SEVIS system.” The official word from UMASS, says Dahlstrom-Hakki, is “silence.”

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses: Debt, Prison, Workfare (Boston: South End Press). He is a member of the collective of the Northampton-based Valley War Bulletin, where this article first appeared.

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