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Foreign students urged to 'speak out'

The head of the American Civil Liberties Union pleaded with international students at MIT to "speak out lawfully" against federal legislation that erodes their rights and "borders on racial profiling."

"Do not fall prey to efforts to silence debate," Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told an audience of about 40 in Wong Auditorium Thursday. "You as students have to speak up for your own rights because no one else is doing it," he said. He gave the presentation, titled "The Rights of International Students in Time of War," with Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook, associate dean for graduate students and director of the International Students Office.

Romero, who took office in 2001, seven days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, criticized the silence of college officials in the face of new legislation such as the USA Patriot Act and a new government database that increases the information being kept on international students, and said special procedures for students from the seven state-sponsors-of-terrorism countries bordered on racial profiling.

"I am struck by the absence of a clear voice from college officials about the rights of foreign students. Where is the principled defense for [their] rights?" said Romero, who is Puerto Rican and grew up in the Bronx.

"We haven't been as outspoken about your civil rights as we should be, because we've been scrambling to keep your legal rights," Guichard-Ashbrook said. "The presidential directives have been coming fast and furious. Directives become regulations the day the President makes them. We have had to scramble for ways to keep you here and keep you compliant.

"I'm not an attorney. I can only tell you what it's like working in this climate. Attorney Romero refers to 'borderline' racial profiling. I don't think it's borderline. I think it is racial profiling. You need to put pressure on your institutions to go to bat for you. You have a human right to be treated with respect and decency."

Following short presentations by Romero and Guichard-Ashbrook, audience members shared their concerns and questions.


One woman noted that most Americans view study in the United States as a privilege for foreigners, not a right. How, she asked, in a time when the public has shown a willingness to revoke that privilege, can a sincere debate take place?

"The best way to engage the citizenry is to broaden the debate to include American citizens' civil rights, which are being eroded simultaneously," Romero said. "To engage the broader climate of how it affects students, you need to look at how it affects everyone."

At issue, he said, is balancing freedom with safety. The attacks made him aware that "liberty is not a fixed, stable, unwavering thing. It is dynamic and it changes as the world changes. This would have struck me a year ago as heresy. But one year later, I am struck by how tenuous the balance is."

Several people wondered what rights foreign students have in the United States. "The founding fathers were very clear that Fifth Amendment rights to due process were extended to all people," said Romero.

After the discussion, Jahan Ramezani, a postdoctoral associate in earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, said, "The question that everyone must ask is that if all of the new security measures, government directives and legislation targeting international students and scholars were in place over a year ago, would they have prevented the terrorist acts of Sept. 11, 2001? From what we know about these incidents and their perpetrators, the answer is a clear no."

Ramezani, who immigrated from Iran to Canada, continued: "International students bear the responsibility of communicating their issues and concerns to the public and everyone needs to think long and hard about this. The legal and moral repercussions of these policies are going to affect the entire community, long after the war rhetoric has ceased."

"The Rights of International Students in Time of War" was sponsored by the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT and MIT's Episcopal Ministry.

Balakrishnan Rajagopal, the Ford International Assistant Professor of Law and Development in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and director of the Human Rights and Justice Program at MIT, introduced the speakers.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 30, 2002.

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