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State Mulls Tighter Rules for Foreign Students

But rules would harm educational efforts, say student advisors.

Virginia's colleges and universities may soon have to keep closer track of their foreign students and report any suspected criminal behavior they see, if Gov. Mark Warner (D) approves a series of new proposals.

The recommendations were issued by the Secure Virginia Panel, composed of local and statewide public officials, and accepted by Warner on Nov. 4.

Warner will consider the recommendations and appoint task forces to study the specifics, said Kevin Hall, a spokesperson for the governor. Some of the proposals can be implemented administratively while others would require the General Assembly to approve legislation, he said. Citizens can expect to see changes in the state's regulations within the next eight months, he added.

"Public safety is a key core priority especially in the new environment in which we live," said Hall. "I think all governments at all levels are looking at their processes with different eyes after 9-11."

<b>THE RECOMMENDATIONS,</b> if approved, would require academic institutions in Virginia to verify the legal status of the international students it admits. The schools would also have to keep an eye on the students and "share student information with law enforcement authorities concerning students and staff who may be involved in illegal activities," according to the recommendations. The panel also noted that these new security measures were a "shared responsibility" between federal and state government and colleges and universities.

Julia Findlay, the director of the office of international programs and services at George Mason University, said that international student advisors would comply with the new rules even though they would be unhappy about them.

"That's going above and beyond what foreign student advisors would ever want to do. That is not our role," she said. "We are not deputies. We have no interest in being deputized to perform law enforcement functions."

The federal government has already enacted new laws that require schools to assist the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in tracking international students. Any additional Virginia regulation would be "duplicating" the federal efforts, said Findlay.

"Most of our colleagues in other states are not having to do this twice," she said. But, she noted, "post-Sept. 11 we certainly had visits by more agencies than INS."

At a meeting of international student advisors in Virginia at Virginia Commonwealth University in October, representatives from Virginia schools discussed the need to lobby their elected officials more.

<b>DEL. JAMES ALMAND (D-47),</b> who represents Arlington and who sits on the Secure Virginia Panel, said that improved communication between school and public safety officials would make everyone safer.

"The Secure Virginia Panel is looking at it in the sense of potential terrorist infiltration," he said. "I think there's always been a desire to have a closer working relationship with campus police and local police or sheriff's offices. If there's any kind of terrorist threat you need to have information back and forth."

There’s an obvious benefit to hearing concerns about Virginia studens, said Almand. "If somebody is up to illegal activities or is going to school to learn how to fly airplanes so they can crash into our buildings we obviously want to have a system within the campus that will detect that threat of heinous behavior," he said.

But, he added, "I would hope... that the ultimate outcome would allow [international] students to continue their education and become more productive citizens."

But Findlay said, "The ability of international students to study, to genuinely study would be hampered, I think, by the fear that anyone could turn them in for anything fairly minor, that people are watching them all the time."

She added that she feared that international students would no longer come to the United States to study but would choose other countries such as Australia, New Zealand or Great Britain. And that, she said, would be a great loss.

"From the educational perspective it would be a tremendous loss, she said. "That's truly the saddest part of all this. If they stop coming our country loses and our state loses."

International students are, she said, "a great benefit to the people in this state and young people especially."

Already, she added, many foreign students, particularly those from the Middle East are "terrified" by the increased scrutiny.

"The new [students] that have just come to this country are frightened," said Mais Abousy, a 21-year-old economics major at George Mason University who chairs the International Student Umbrella at the university. "They already have a fear of the governments to begin with from their old country."

Abousy, a native of Iraq born in Baghdad, also said that, with the exception of the Office of International Programs and Services, the administration of the school needs to communicate better with the international students on their legal rights.

If the Secure Virginia Panel's recommendations become law, Abousy said, she feared that Middle Eastern students at George Mason might be targeted like their counterparts at other area schools.

"I've heard nightmare stories from these kids and they are not coming back."

<b>SEVERAL OTHER</b> recommendations concerning school safety were in the panel's report. These included asking the governor to make campus public safety agencies eligible for federal funds for "first responders." According to Hall, this would require approval from the federal government.

Another recommendation seeks to exempt portions of public schools' safety audits from Virginia's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). According to Almand, that means that information on topics such as the means of access to a school or its system of door locking would be off-limits to the public.

"If you're trying to be a secure school you wouldn't want to broadcast what your weaknesses are," he said.

But Kent Willis, the director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was concerned by the exemption.

"We should always be concerned when the government asks for exemptions to the FOIA," he said.

"It is very easy for the government to argue we need more exemptions to the FOIA in order to maintain safety but what they're really saying is we need new exemptions to the FOIA for secrecy," he said, adding that "secrecy should be very rare."

"There are matters of safety and security the public should know about."