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August 20, 2012

Homeland Security, Higher Education, and Background Checks

 In recent years, colleges and universities have faced a new challenge. While there has been a movement underway on college campuses to increase the safety of a wide range of university constituents through criminal background checks (CBCs), in most cases this movement has failed to include CBCs of foreign faculty and student populations.
The arguments given for why universities do not incorporate international criminal background checks on foreign employees and students include cost, limited access, the accuracy and timeliness of these checks, and an assumption that the check has already been conducted by the U.S. government, before the person entered the country. Despite stronger federal legislation aimed at bolstering homeland security initiatives for college campuses, there is still no federal requirement for universities to conduct CBCs on foreign employees or students arriving in the United States to work or attend colleges and universities.
For example, the existing visa process requires a CBC in only two cases: where a hit appears when the applicant’s name is run against the Consular Lookout and Support System’s (CLASS) database to identify known terrorists and where the applicant has self-disclosed a criminal, mental health, or terrorism history. Even the USA PATRIOT Act (Patriot Act), a federal law passed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 2001 and designed to intercept and obstruct terrorist activities, does not mandate background checks on foreign nationals attending U.S. colleges and universities. It does designate the use of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) to track foreign visitors and more easily access and monitor electronic communication patterns of individuals suspected of engaging in terrorist activities.
By comparison, the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002outlines a procedure for requiring a CBC of a foreign national. However, under this law, only individuals who will be working in university laboratories with particular biological agents will be required to register with the federal government and undergo a security risk assessment (Catholic University, 2008). This law applies to both domestic and foreign employees, and checks are conducted by the federal government through the office of the U.S. attorney general. Individual state legislatures, possibly recognizing the inadequacy of federal legislation, have pushed through their own laws mandating background checks on all newly hired employees working at state-supported institutions, and these laws sometimes include CBCs on foreign nationals.
The underutilization of CBCs on foreign students and employees exists despite record-high levels of foreign students coming to study at U.S. universities. More than 620,000 international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities for the 2007–2008 academic year, a 7 percent increase over the 2006–2007 academic year (Maslen, 2008). Increased legislation and security-enhanced visa processes would seem to be designed to manage this influx of foreign students, but closer examination highlights continuing security gaps. These gaps exist despite analysis that showed a number of the 9/11 terrorists had entered the United States through either visitor or student visa channels.
 Institutional planning and research offices could help lead the way on policy development in this area given that they are responsible for providing university administrators and top management with information that supports institutional planning, policy formation, and decision making.
These offices could help administrators by providing specific detail on overall numbers of foreign students, student compliance with SEVIS, and numbers of foreign employees and students employed on college campuses and across all colleges and universities. This would provide a much more robust picture of the issues associated with this topic and facilitate movement toward a more comprehensive approach to managing and mitigating this risk.
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  1. I recently came across your article and have been reading along. I want to express my admiration of your writing skill and ability to make readers read from the beginning to the end. I would like to read newer posts and to share my thoughts with you.

  2. It does designate the use of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) to track foreign visitors and more easily access and monitor electronic communication patterns of individuals suspected of engaging in terrorist activities.

  3. It's actually kind of surprising that foreign students are not required to take background screenings while most other foreigners are. While it seems like students would only be there for a little bit (four years max) and not be considered a threat, that is just one way that shows a weakened infrastructure. Thanks for the information and for keeping others up to date.