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Schools brace for tighter immigration rules

Immigration experts call it the “Mohamed Atta rule,” a proposal soon to take effect to try to prevent would-be terrorists from hiding here as students.

But community-based schools, ranging from the small Quaker City Aviation Institute to the Community College of Philadelphia, call it a potential blow to admissions that may complicate life for many genuine students.

“Students are paying for an unfortunate connection” to Sept. 11, said Carmelo Miranda Lopez, director of admissions and recruitment at the community college.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service this week announced the changes it hopes to implement in coming weeks. One rule would require any foreign national seeking a student visa to apply in person at a consulate abroad before entering the country.

Currently, nonimmigrant visitors can apply to switch their status to student without prior notice and without leaving the country. The INS would modify that rule to require any would-be student at least to have declared themselves a “prospective student” when entering the country.

At the same time, the INS wants to drastically reduce the maximum time most other visitors could stay, from six months to just 30 days in most cases.

The impact may be only slight on major higher-education institutions, such as the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University and Rutgers University. They have the most international students in the Philadelphia region, more than 10,000. But many already tend to come with study visas directly from overseas.

“These rules are a first step. They make a small number of changes, and colleges and universities fully support them,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the nonprofit American Council on Education, a Washington-based advocacy group for major colleges that has worked on the rules with the INS.

But for smaller vocational and community schools, the impact could be big. Thousands of their students less likely to have come from across the globe than from across town. They are foreign tourists or workers who want to get a visa to study, or sometimes just to stay in the country.

“We recognize that the overwhelming majority of people who come to the United States as visitors are honest and law-abiding,” INS Commissioner James Ziglar said this week in announcing the proposal. But “the events of Sept. 11 remind us that there will always be those who seek to cause us harm.”

Atta, of Egypt, and Marwan Al-Shehhi, of the United Arab Emirates – two of the 19 hijackers – had entered the country as nonimmigrant visitors. Then they applied to change their status to student, and the INS gave them preliminary approval to enroll in a Florida flight school. (In a startling debacle last month, the INS sent the dead men’s visa-approval notices to the school – six months after the attack.)

INS officials do not know the exact number of foreign students and would-be students who could be affected, regional spokeswoman Niki Edwards said.

The INS has approved roughly 70,000 educational institutions nationwide to accept foreign students, including hundreds in the Philadelphia region, Edwards said.

According to the nonprofit Institute for International Education, the number of international students last year at colleges and universities nationwide was about 547,000, barely 2 percent of the 32 million foreign visitors allowed into the country annually.

Pennsylvania had 22,279 foreign students and New Jersey 12,558, ranking both among the students’ favorite U.S. destinations. The students spent an estimated $762 million in both states, the institute said.

“This rule could, conceivably, have a big impact on students and on enrollment generally,” said Fran Cubberley, dean for enrollment services at Delaware County Community College in Media.

Out of roughly 25,000 students, the college has 211 students this year on valid study visas, some paying up to $4,000 a semester. But up to 500 more are taking courses while here on other kinds of visas, including permanent and visitor visas. Many are from Upper Darby and nearby Delaware County towns that have become mini-melting pots in the region.

“I’m concerned there’s an overemphasis on the students and not enough on everybody else,” Cubberley said.

Further INS changes are planned, including creation of a database, accessible over the Internet, where schools would record whether foreign students showed up for class.

The INS rules would take effect after being published and opened for public comment in the Federal Register (