Case Overview, National Security Restrictions on Foreign Nationals and Laboratory Security

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over student visas and laboratory security following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 1999. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.


          One of the most shocking revelations about the September 11th terrorists was that the individuals who piloted the hijacked the planes learned how to fly at American aviation schools. How was it that men who intended to engage in acts of war entered the country legally under student visas? In the ensuing weeks a clear answer emerged: our borders are porous and our bureaucracies charged with keeping undesirables out of this country had neither the tools nor the resources to do an adequate job. In particular the Immigration and Naturalization Service was overwhelmed with the tasks given to it by our government.
          In the wake of the September 11th tragedy, The Congress moved quickly to pass the U.S. Patriot Act to tighten controls over who is allowed into the United States, provide better monitoring of visitors during their stay here, and ensure they leave when their visa or work permit expires. The focus, of course, was on residents of countries regarded as hostile to the United States, countries that could be havens for terrorists. Yet separating potential terrorists from other foreign visitors is no easy task. Since the suspect countries are Islamic there was the understandable concern that broad prohibitions would be deemed prejudicial. Moreover, it is important for the United States to remain on good terms with some of these Islamic states, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, as we need their cooperation for diplomatic and strategic purposes.
          Regulating foreign students and researchers is a particularly difficult problem. The superiority of American colleges and universities attracts large numbers of foreign students each year, including many of the best and the brightest from developing countries. Scientific laboratories make heavy use of doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows who are residents of other countries. The head of one active organization noted that foreigners "make up 30 percent of the work force [in labs] . . . if you are going to bar them from work in this country it is going to have a significant impact." Colleges and universities were not only concerned about their right to enroll foreign students, but they also feared they would be stuck with a burdensome increase in their record keeping and could be forced to play more of a policing role in keeping tabs on their foreign students. Hispanic American organizations feared that the new focus on immigration and visas would increase suspicion about Hispanics living in this country.
          Lobbying on this legislation was tricky. There were certainly plenty of organizations that were concerned about the law being drawn too tightly, but in the atmosphere that enveloped the country after September 11th, no organization could appear to be anything less than 100 percent patriotic. Thus there was no frontal assault on its goals and the lobbying that ensued focused on the details of the legislation. In addition to enrollment issues, colleges and universities had to deal with a related matter: who should be allowed to handle certain kinds of dangerous substances in labs. For example is it in the nation's interests to allow foreign scientists training here to gather expertise on anthrax? Looking back one participant said, "We were very much advocates for balance . . . we need to enhance homeland security but the example we would use, a moratorium on all international students, it would be like saying you are going to have a moratorium for six months on oil from the Middle East." In the end legislators made some pragmatic concessions and most of those lobbying felt that although the legislation made life more difficult for their organization, they could live with the changes in our post 911 world.