Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2002 / 29 Shevat, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- WHEN President Bush told the American people that "time is not on our side," he meant it in more ways than one. Not only are the sponsors of terror in the Iraqs, Irans and North Koreas of the world racing to stockpile weapons of mass destruction, and not only are tens of thousands of trained terrorists on the loose (with visions of exploding embassies and nuclear facilities dancing in their heads), but they can all come here, virtually unchecked, on the same student visa program that existed before Sept. 11.
Despite fearsome harumphing in recent months over a wholly ineffective visa-tracking system, The New York Times reports that the government is still "at least" a year away from implementing a new system to prevent student visas from falling into terrorists' clutches. And once the computer network ordered six years ago to keep tabs on foreign students is fully operational, immigration officials say there won't be enough agents to check on visa violators anyway.
Meanwhile, nobody in officialdom has a clue where the 547,000 foreign nationals already holding student visas actually are, let alone what they are doing. This is not good.
Odds are, of course, that the overwhelming majority is doing nothing to threaten national security or public safety. But excellent odds didn't prevent Hani Hanjour, a Saudi national who had come into this country on a student visa to study English in California, from flying American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. Or keep Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman under indictment as the "20th hijacker," from roaming the heartland on a student visa until his arrest last August.
This ruse -- bloodthirsty terrorist posing as knowledge-thirsty scholar -- was first exposed when a Kuwaiti named Eyad Ismoil, having dropped out of Wichita State University in 1991, overstayed his student visa long enough to drive the van that carried the bomb in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. That explosion killed "only" six people and wounded more than 1,000, but it led to the first calls to reform a program that had not only enabled a bona fide terrorist to help attack the heart of New York City, but was also providing entry to thousands from terrorist-sponsoring nations, many of whom were here to bone up on, say, the finer points of advanced nuclear, biological, or ballistic studies.
Student-visa terrorists struck again in 1994, when Rashid Baz of Lebanon and Bassam Mousa Reyati of Jordan attacked a van carrying Hasidic students over the Brooklyn Bridge, killing one and wounding three. And in 1997, only an informer's 11th-hour tip prevented two ready-to-detonate Palestinian suicide bombers from attacking New York City's subway system. One of the men, Ghazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, now serving two concurrent life terms (plus 30 years), made it to this country on a bogus student visa -- via Canada.
We can't do much about Canada's system, but our own is another matter. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, had the right idea last fall when she called for a six-month moratorium on student visas to give the immigration service time for an urgently needed transformation. Alas, she has erased her own bold stroke since the higher-education lobby persuaded her of the error of her ways.
This lobby has been a drag on reform efforts all along, warding them off to protect the free flow of higher-than-average tuition paid by foreign students. For years now, college administrators have raised a ruckus over such reasonable proposals as the one-time $95 fee to be required of foreign students to fund the new tracking system. Before Sept. 11, one administrator publicly fretted over a prediction that the fee's imposition would require counselors to spend an additional 20 minutes with each foreign student -- the kind of hardship no doubt rivaled only by those endured on the Shackleton polar expedition. And even after Sept. 11, higher education organizations are still arguing that collecting such a fee from visa applicants "would cause too much delay and steer students to competing countries like Australia and Canada."
Please. Besides the fact that an extra $95 seems unlikely to deter any applicant able to pay thousands of dollars in tuition, attracting foreign nationals is simply not a priority in the struggle to bring law and order to a Wild West of a visa system. Smart efficiency is our assignment -- and it is long
JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.