The Student and Exchange Visitor Program monitors international students for INS and universities by constructing an extensive database on their backgrounds and personal information.
The system would also allow the monitoring of students from "rogue states" -- nations unfriendly to the United States -- to prevent possible terrorist acts.
"It's a customer service program," said INS spokeswoman Ayleen Schmidt, adding that she expects the system to be used nationwide in 2003.
Under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996, a program for tracking and recording information on international students was introduced at 21 institutions, including Duke University.
A report by the National Commission on Terrorism last June stated that a small minority of international students might exploit their student status to support terrorist activity and should be monitored. The commission testified before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last year.
The report states that the government lacks the ability to monitor the immigration status of the thousands of students from rogue nations who are studying in the United States.
"The commission's main concern was that a lot of information and technical training would become available to people studying in the U.S.," said Stephen Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington, D.C.-based independent think tank.
"The government should think twice about students such as Libyans and Iraqis studying nuclear energy," he said. "Someone may get a visa to study art history and then change their major to aeronautical engineering, and the U.S. government may not know about it."
There has been only one case where a former international student was linked to terrorism.
Investigators discovered that one of the terrorists involved in bombing the World Trade Center in 1993 entered the U.S. on a student visa, dropped out and remained in the country illegally.
But educators at universities across the nation said although the program has its benefits, it places an unfair stigma on international students.
Catherine Cotton, director of the International Office at Duke University, said she did not know of any terrorists identified by the INS.
"But that's not the point," she said. "Educational institutions object to the concept that international scholars and students are latent terrorists."
David Bryan, director of the International Office at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore, said the program has its pros. "It's an accurate system that gives us real time data on the internationals we deal with," he said.
He added that Johns Hopkins frequently gets requests for information from the FBI and INS. "If required by law we'll provide the information," he said.
But Aftergood was not persuaded of the threat. "The report was not particularly endorsed by the federation," he said. "We think that there is a positive value to be gained through academic exchange."
There are 1,118 international students enrolled at UNC, many coming from China, India and South Korea.
Robert Locke, director of the University International Center, said the report did not apply to UNC.
"It doesn't make sense," he said. "Why take a route that requires lots of documentation and be situated at an institution where everyone knows who they are?"
Locke said international students are often used as scapegoats.
"They are the least likely group for terrorists," he said. "International students have identified themselves in so many ways that they are the most regulated group of all people entering the United States."
Hiu Ling Wong, president of the Chinese Undergraduate Association at UNC, said she does not think monitoring is just. "I don't think it's fair unless they have evidence," she said. "Otherwise, I think it's discrimination."
She added she had never experienced any monitoring herself.
And Locke said while authorities have the legitimate right to monitor international students, it is largely a waste of time. "There has been no hard evidence, with the exception of one person involved in the World Trade Center bombing who was a one-time college student," he said.
"That's the only connection they have been able to make."
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