from Renewing America

Terrorism, Refugees and Foreign Students: Learning from History

Migrants Hungary

November 18, 2015

Migrants Hungary
Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

More on:


While the governors of more than two dozen U.S. states were announcing this week their intention not to resettle refugees from Syria, America’s universities were reporting the biggest leap in the past three decades in the number of foreign students studying in the United States. Nearly one million students from every corner of the world – including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen and, yes, Syria – are currently pursuing higher education in the United States. The year-over-year increase in the number of foreign students is the largest since 1978, according to the Institute for International Education’s annual Open Doors report.

What do the two have to do with each other? Those who remember the 9/11 attacks may recall that several of the hijackers had originally come to the United States on foreign student visas. Prior to 9/11, U.S. background checks of student visa applicants were minimal, enforcement of the rules was lax, and tracking of foreign students was non-existent. Some of the hijackers exploited these weaknesses to enter the United States and help carry out the attacks. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, many members of Congress called for a sweeping crackdown on foreign students – much as many governors and candidates for the presidency are doing today with regard to refugees. Senator Dianne Feinstein called the student visa program “one of the most unregulated and exploited visa categories,” and urged a six-month moratorium on allowing foreign students to come to the United States. A similar "pause" in refugee admissions from Syria is now being suggested by leading members of Congress.

Cooler heads prevailed fortunately, and the student visa program was not halted or killed. But the effort to tighten the rules so that genuine security risks could better be identified did create lengthy delays that had a significant impact on foreign student attendance at American universities. For several years following 9/11 foreign student enrollment fell, the only time that has happened since the end of World War II. Today, a much better and more efficient system of security checks on foreign students is in place, and as a result the United States is both a more welcoming country and a safer one.

There is a lesson here. For all-too-human reasons, whenever there is a horrific crime or terrorist attack committed, we assume that something in the nature or identity of the individuals must explain their maliciousness. If Syrians or Saudis were involved, then we must keep out Syrians and Saudis. If refugees were involved, we must bar refugees. If foreign students had a role, then foreign students are by definition a threat.

But the reality is that radical groups have exploited almost every opportunity available to them – from weaknesses in immigration rules to the discontent that has bred homegrown terrorists. Halting the flow of refugees would do no more to make the United States safer than halting the flow of foreign students would have helped after 9/11. And the costs of such short-sighted responses can be enormous. Foreign students last year contributed some $30 billion to the U.S. economy, not to mention the huge benefits that come from bringing the world’s best students to study at our best institutions. Barring refugees today would send a dismal message to the world about the U.S. willingness to help address an enormous humanitarian crisis, and probably encourage other countries in Europe and elsewhere to follow that lead.

What is needed in all these cases are intelligent screening systems to help identify the needles of genuine threat amid the haystacks of those coming for legitimate reasons. Before 9/11, the student visa system was genuinely a mess and a security risk; while it is not perfect today, it is far, far better. In comparison, the screening systems for refugees admitted to the United States are exceedingly thorough, involving multiple levels of scrutiny by both United Nations and American officials. Indeed, the United States should be able to accelerate a review process that often takes 18 months or more, much as the screening of foreign students today is much more efficient and timely than it was for several years following 9/11.

There is no such thing as perfect security, to be sure. Even the best vetting system can make mistakes. But the governors, members of Congress and presidential hopefuls calling for a halt to refugee admissions would do well to look at what has worked so far, and why, before abruptly pulling up the welcome mat.

More on: