By Aref Assaf
Recent coverage of the decline in foreign college students misses the real target of the post 9/11 visa restrictions. President Trump’s anti-immigration policies and the so-called Muslim ban have adversely impacted the number of foreign students, particularly those from Arab and Muslim countries.
The NJ.com article rather fails to adequately highlight the urgent need to adopt alternative methods to ensure the security of the United States without impeding the influx of foreign students.
Increased security checks and visa restrictions were established after two of the 19 hijackers who committed the 9/11 atrocities entered the United States on student visas. The target has been mainly Arab and Muslim students from 25 countries arbitrarily deemed as involved with or supporters of terrorism.
If not substantially modified, the long-term prognosis for continued foreign student decline bodes ill for American universities and the United States.
While anecdotal data showed a leveling off in the decline of enrollment by foreign students, it must be noted that this improvement masks the fact that the overall decline was small because of the significantly increased enrollment by Chinese and Indian students. This increase offsets the continued serious decline of incoming students from Muslim and Arab countries.
Even before 9/11, students from many Third World countries have been intensely recruited by countries such as Australia, Britain, India and even China. For these emerging world economic powers, attracting bright students is a great way to ensure a competitive scientific and economic edge in the new world economy.
The United States is no longer viewed as a welcoming center for international research, especially in the sciences, due mainly to its unfriendly and time-consuming requirements for attaining student visas.
No one should question the critical need for uniformly tighter visa issuance and practical measures to confront the real threat of global terrorism. However, we believe it is precisely in our national and strategic interests that we continue to actively recruit students from Arab and Muslim countries.
First, they represent a significant portion of the annual $13 billion that foreign students pump into the U.S. economy. Second, U.S. colleges will gain the all-important element of international talents, interactions and unique cultural experiences so necessary to lead in an increasingly globalized and competitive world. And third, we will have a significant role to play in educating or influencing future leaders of the countries we so keenly wish to impact.
While the United States is slowly adapting smoother and speedier visa processing, the harm has been done by creating a negative perception of our country’s hospitality and eagerness to attract students, researchers and even medical or leisure tourists.
A much-concerted effort is needed to return U.S. institutions of higher education to their historical position as a magnet for the global creative class, and for attracting the world’s best and brightest minds.
The great majority of students wishing to study here adore this country and harbor no ill feelings towards our system of government or people.
To them, we must continue to open our doors – and open them wide.
Aref Assaf, PhD, is president of the American Arab Forum in Paterson.