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Shooting America in the Foot

What does history say about U.S. efforts to restrict subjects studied by foreign students?

May 10, 2002

What does history say about U.S. efforts to restrict subjects studied by foreign students?

Serious security lapses occurred in the run-up to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001. But some of the responses proposed by the Bush Administration to upgrade homeland defense fall short of the mark.

One such area is student visas. Only one of the hijackers who perpetrated the September 11 attacks was living in the United States on a valid student visa — out of 659,000 students who obtained these visas from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in 2001.

The other terrorists entered the United States legally on tourist, business and vocational training visas. They simply overstayed their visas once they expired.

A working group for U.S. Homeland Defense suggested a further tightening — to include restrictions on which subjects foreign students may study in U.S. universities.

Under the proposal, students could be banned from acquiring knowledge that might allow them to build weapons of mass destruction, for example, by enrolling in some science and technology programs.

On the surface, this may appear like a sensible idea. But, in reality, it may be among the most misguided U.S. policy proposals to be floated in recent months. According to published reports, it has already been scaled back to a simpler “screening” of advanced level graduate students from outside the United States.

Many observers forget the crucial role that foreign scientists have played in U.S. research. For instance, without refugees from Germany, Austria, Hungary and Italy there would have been no Manhattan Project. That project, of course, was the top-secret U.S. scientific undertaking to build the first nuclear device.

In fact, the Manhattan Project became reality only after Eugene Wigner, a Hungarian-born Nobel Prize laureate — and the father of nuclear engineering — wrote a letter to President Roosevelt about the potential for nuclear weapons.

Enrico Fermi, an Italian, did the major theoretical and practical work on the bomb. They and may other foreign scientists working on the project were from the countries America was at war with, and under the proposed rules might have been banned from participating in it.

In the light of past history, we wonder what damage to America’s national security could be inflicted in the future if foreigners were indeed prevented from studying on U.S. soil. Their research on potentially lethal technologies in America’s universities may end up saving — and not hurting — U.S. national security.