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Letter Imperfect

Are you a conservative? Want to win a free cooler or a mousepad? Just copy and paste a form letter praising Republican policies from, a Web site put up by the Republican National Committee, sign them as your own and e-mail them to your local papers. Even though the newspapers you contact will not be amused if they discover they have unwittingly run a political press release, the GOP will reward you for it anyway.

These deceptive letters are known as “astroturf,” implying artificial grassroots support for a politician, a party or an issue. Recently, the Republicans were caught at it when a Boston Globe reader, Amity Wilczek, discovered that the Globe had been used for partisan ends without its knowledge—it ran a GOP form letter expressing strong support for President Bush’s tax cut, signed by Stephanie Johnson of Milton, Mass., on Sept. 12—and notified the paper. The Globe then learned it had published four such letters since mid-October, and that dozens of dailies around the nation had received identical or very similar letters. Editors at the Globe were displeased when they realized they had been snookered, and have since received more than 40 of the e-mails.

Howard Healy, who handles letters to the editor at the Times Union, said in a recent phone conversation that about six of the GOP e-mails had shown up in the Times Union’s editorial inbox. “It’s not uncommon,” Healy explained in reference to political form letters, citing similar write-in campaigns to the Times Union in the past by the Public Employees Federation over the issue of weekday parking in downtown Albany, and by a vegetarian group against eating meat. He went on to say that the use of computers has greatly facilitated the mass dissemination of such letters, and that many newspapers are now alerting each other to them.

Reached by e-mail for comment on the Republican National Committee form letters, Catherine Mathis, vice president of corporate communications for the New York Times Company, wrote, “We would not knowingly print a letter that was part of this sort of campaign, and since we get hundreds of letters every day, we certainly have no need to. Our goals are to present a variety of views on different topics that are genuinely written by the signees.

“The editors in the Letters section call every person whose letter we want to print, and check the accuracy of their statements. There is no foolproof way to make sure the product of a political letter-writing campaign doesn’t slip through, but we do our best to make sure they don’t.”

—Glenn Weiser


Journey to freedom: The 1837 logo of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

You Are Being Watched

As of Saturday, Feb. 15, the lives of international students and visiting foreign faculty on campuses across the United States were officially placed under a new monitoring regime, with their day-to-day activities facing an unprecedented level of scrutiny. That was the day the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) went online.

Mandated by legislation passed in the wake of the first World Trade Center bombing (which occurred in 1993), and modified by the post-Sept. 11 USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act, SEVIS is an online database of information—available to both the Immigration and Nationalization Service and the Department of State—regarding the status of every foreign student and faculty member.

In addition to general personal data—including name, date and place of birth, citizenship and degree program—all universities are required to report to SEVIS information related to attendance and course load. Foreign students, for example, are required to carry a minimum of 12 credit hours, and must report any change of address immediately. According to a memo sent on Dec. 4, 2002, by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Office of International Services for Students and Scholars (ISSS) to academic departments, “[the INS] has stated that they will not be forgiving if [the] student/scholar makes a mistake.”

The RPI memo outlines three specific areas the departments and faculty are required to keep track of and report on. One: If a student, visiting faculty or their families are “on campus” or “no show.” Two: If a student is “not attending classes or meeting degree progress.” Three: If a student is “talking about not taking 12 credit hours.”

Civil-liberties groups are mainly concerned with the possible misuses of this new, extensive database. As immigration attorney Claudia Slovinsky told The Village Voice last month, SEVIS acts as a “substitute for good investigative work. You end up doing racial profiling.”

Schools have no choice but to follow the law, however. If a college does not comply with SEVIS, it cannot enroll international students.

The system has also suffered problems in the months before its official launch. According to Business Week, the INS was still working out glitches in SEVIS as recently as three weeks ago. This is supported by the RPI memo, which complains that: “We are working with a system that is brand new and does not yet have the bugs worked out. We are also working with regulations that are not final yet. . . . We also are working with a govt. that is requiring or making changes for students and scholars almost weekly.”

If nothing else, there are concerns that increased scrutiny will lead to a chilling effect on the international student communities on U.S. campuses. The RPI memo suggests just this chill when it states: “A student cannot just be a student anymore.”

—Shawn Stone

Road to Freedom

It is a little-known fact that residences on Livingston Avenue, State Street and Green Street were all key locations in Albany during the Underground Railroad movement. In fact, hundreds of fugitive slaves were helped in Albany. A spotlight will be turned on this history when the College of Saint Rose hosts a conference highlighting the Capital Region’s role in the Underground Railroad on Saturday (Feb. 22).

The Underground Railroad was active in Albany as early as 1830s. Mary Liz Stewart of the Underground Railroad History Project said the Capital Region was an attractive place for the fugitive slaves because it presented a crossroads: They were able to continue north into Canada or head east to Boston in search of their freedom.

Stewart noted that there were a number of very active abolitionists in the area, which was also a reason why slaves sought refuge in Albany and its surrounding areas. African-American businessmen teamed up with white abolitionists of the community to form a vigilance committee that cooperated with the Underground Railroad in New York City. It was their responsibility to protect and aid fugitive slaves. Wealthy abolitionists sometimes provided some financial assistance, while others helped to find places for the fugitives to live or helped them set up jobs.

At Saturday’s conference at CSR, a number of workshops will be offered on several related topics including Harriet Tubman and African-American history in the first half of the 19th century; there also will be storytellers and level-appropriate educator workshops. Stewart hopes the conference will help reclaim this important part of local history and place it within a national context. “This period in history, prior to the Civil War, has gotten little coverage,” said Stewart. “By coming to and being part of the conference, it is possible to see the bigger side of the picture.”

Speaking at the conference will be Dr. Judith Wellman, director of Historical New York Inc. and retired professor of history at SUNY Oswego. Registration is $15; the conference begins at 8:30 AM. For more information, or to register, contact the Underground Railroad History Project at 432-4432 or e-mail

—Jaclyn Acker

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