Attempts to thwart terrorism affect financial aid

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In the aftermath of Sept. 11, there’s a move in the Florida Legislature to cut off financial aid to college or university students who have citizenship in any country that has been identified by the United States as a terrorist haven or supporting terrorism.

Passed in an 8-5 vote by a House committee, the proposal would affect nonresidents with student visas from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea and the Sudan.

Florida’s annual assistance program to students from these countries is minimal, about $203,871.

There are about 450 students from these countries enrolled throughout Florida, but officials said they’re not sure how many of those receive subsidies for their studies on the university level.

Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, who filed a companion measure in the Senate, said he’d rather see the money go toward “reading equipment in elementary schools or pay for school buildings in Broward County.”

Rep. Dick Kravitz, R-Jacksonville, said his bill (HB 665) is not necessarily intended to keep these students out of the country or out of Florida’s colleges; it’s to discourage them from using Florida taxpayer’s money for their education.

He said he wants to send the message: “Listen, folks, if you want the good people of Florida to support you, … get your country off the list or go to work like my kid. I’m not going to pay for you.”

Kravitz said he has received angry e-mails from voters comparing the proposal to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

“But they were citizens,” he said. “That was wrong.”

But Rep. Sally Heyman, D-North Miami Beach, an opponent, said education should remain apolitical, “like the Olympics.”

The move was also blasted by the American Civil Liberties Union, which called it selective discrimination and equated it with denying grants and loans to men and not women.

Larry Spalding, ACLU spokesman, said the bill cannot thwart terrorism, since 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks obtained U.S. visas in Saudi Arabia, which is not on the list.

“The state of Florida wants to go into the foreign policy business,” he said. “That’s not your job.”

But the majority agreed they could limit funding.

“Our taxpayer dollars should not be used to support scholarships for students from terrorist nations,” said Rep. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.

Cuban-born Rep. Annie Betancourt, D-Miami, said she voted for the bill since “that kind of scholarship ought to be for residents. We’ve got enough needy students here.”

Broward Community College President Willis Holcombe admitted he finds the bill troubling.

Students here on visas may not be able to work to pay their bills since it would violate terms of a student visa.

Since so many decide to stay in the United States, Holcombe said it would be denying them an education.

Bill Edmonds, a spokesman for state Education Secretary Jim Horne, said Horne is still studying the issue, but if students “were here for nefarious ends, their country could pay their bills and they’d still be here.

“It’s a false sense of security.”