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Attorney generals call for student visa vetting as tensions grow on US campuses

Attorney generals from 20 US states have written to the federal government calling for renewed vetting of international student visa holders as campus tensions continue amid the Israel-Hamas war. 

Protests have continued on campuses across the US. Photo: Unsplash.

Republican presidential candidates also vowed to deport international students

In the letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, officials said they were “concerned” about the “alarming rise of antisemitic threats” in the US, including at universities. 

“Campuses have now become a glowing hotbed of antisemitic activity and threats of violence against Jewish people,” the letter reads. 

It alleges that the National Students for Justice in Palestine group (SJP), which organises demonstrations and boycotts on campuses, is linked to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, both designated as terrorist organisations by the US. 

“Facts like these raise reasonable concerns that persons admitted to the United States on student visas could be involved in supporting terrorist activity,” the letter says.

The attorney generals emphasised that students should not be suspected of criminal activity just because they are foreign visa holders, but that visas should be revoked if they are found to be providing “aid or comfort” to terrorists. 

In light of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which says anyone supporting terrorist organisations is ineligible to receive a visa, they suggest that renewed vetting of foreign students already in the US may “reveal activity that renders them ineligible to hold a student visa and liable to deportation”. 

The letter was signed by attorney generals from states of Arkansas, Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia.

“Revoking student visas on the basis of speech alone would be a dangerous overreaction that can only serve to jeopardise the legal protections afforded by the First Amendment,” said Fanta Aw, CEO and executive director of NAFSA. She added that this would “perpetuate inaccurate portrayals of international students and confound public and private diplomacy”.

“International students have been a scapegoat for anti-immigrant xenophobia before and this is another shameful example,” Aw said.

“Revoking student visas would be a dangerous overreaction”

A spokesperson from the US State Department said the government body has “broad authority” to revoke visas where there are indications that an applicant poses a threat to national security. 

“National security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications,” the spokesperson said.

“Maintaining robust screening standards for visa applicants is a dynamic practice that must adapt to emerging threats.  

“We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes and to support legitimate travel and immigration to the United States while protecting US citizens.” 

In a primary debate, several Republican presidential candidates also vowed to deport international students who show support for Hamas and revoke federal funding for universities that fail to crackdown on anti-semitism. 

Ron DeSantis, current governor of Florida, said, “If you are here on a student visa as a foreign national, you’re making common cause with Hamas, I’m cancelling your visa and I’m sending you home, no questions asked.”

In October, DeSantis directed universities in Florida to disband chapters of the SJP on their campuses. 

Former president Donald Trump skipped the debate but previously said, if elected president again in 2024, he will revoke the student visas of “anti-American and anti-semitic foreigners”. Under his administration, over 1,000 Chinese nationals lost their visas, including students and researchers.  

Politicians in the UK are also working on plans to revoke the visas of foreign students who praise Hamas. 

Since the war broke out in October, universities and college leaders have grappled with how to deal with the ongoing tensions on campuses as students organise protests and demonstrations supporting both sides of the conflict.

Both anti-semitism and Islamophobia have been reported on campuses, leaving Jewish and Muslim students feeling unsafe, while universities say they are attempting to balance the right to free speech with the need for safety and security on campus.

“College campuses should be epicenters for the robust and respectful exchange of ideas among students, scholars, and faculty from diverse backgrounds,” said Aw. “Higher education institutions should strive to foster spaces for the constructive expression of differing viewpoints with dignity.”

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