The following editorial appeared in today's Chicago Tribune:
Of all the anti-terrorism measures before Congress, an overhaul of the country's inept immigration system - beginning with tighter background checks and monitoring of the whereabouts of foreign students here - is the most obvious and urgent way to provide a long-term deterrent.
During House testimony Wednesday, Michael Becraft, acting deputy commissioner for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, stunned legislators by admitting that neither the State Department, which issues student visas, nor the INS, charged with monitoring them, knows how many students actually enroll, drop out or remain in the country illegally after completing their studies.
Such astonishing ineptitude clearly contributed to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Hani Hanjour, one of the hijackers of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, entered the United States last year on a student visa but he never showed up at the California school where he had enrolled.
President Bush is right to push for a crackdown on the handling of visa applications. There ought to be tighter screening of applicants and better monitoring of visa holders once in the United States. That in turn will require better coordination among agencies to flag applicants with terrorist or criminal backgrounds. Most of all, it will take considerable funding.
Some of these are not really new proposals. After the 1996 terrorist attacks in Oklahoma City the federal government launched - but never completed - an electronic database to track down visiting students. As part of the anti-terrorism package, Congress has approved $38 million to finish this project.
Intramural coordination is equally essential: If the CIA has a list of suspected terrorists, for example, visa processors at the State Department consulates ought to be notified. Some higher education officials have warned against scaring away foreign students with too many requirements. For hundreds of universities, such students - most of whom pay full tuition - are a motherlode of minds and money.
That hardly justifies the risk of having terrorists in our midst. And it's nonsense to think that serious students will pick universities based on which country processes visas the fastest.
Some half-baked ideas also have surfaced. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., suggested, then abandoned, a six-month freeze on new student visas. Now she wants a blanket ban on students from countries seen as sponsors of terrorism - except that most of those implicated in the Sept. 11 attacks were from Saudi Arabia and other supposedly friendly countries.
The nearly 600,000 foreign students in the United States are a valuable, two-way resource. They enrich our intellectual life while often taking home an appreciation of American society and values.
A tougher student visa system will introduce some delays and extra work for all involved. But it's far better than closing the U.S. borders, and a small sacrifice to reduce the nation's risk.
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