Colleges begin tracking foreign students' status

It's tedious to put data online and register dorm rooms as street addresses, but administrators have two more weeks to comply.

For years, nobody really cared much if a student from abroad dropped a class or moved out of his apartment. Now, any change of status is potentially worthy of scrutiny.

Last Thursday was the original deadline for colleges and universities to begin using the Immigration and Naturalization Service's new computerized student-tracking system. Those that do not can no longer admit foreign students.

At the very least, the Student Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS (pronounced sea-viss), is supposed to ensure that foreigners granted student visas actually show up for classes.

After Sept. 11, outraged members of Congress clamored for a way to ensure that would-be terrorists would not be admitted to the United States under the guise of studying. Concerns intensified when, six months after the attacks, a flight school received notification from the INS that student visas had been extended for two of the hijackers who died in the attacks. A third hijacker had a visa to attend school in California, but eluded attention when he didn't show up for classes.

On Thursday, the INS unexpectedly granted a 15-day grace period because many university officials complained that the system is not working properly.

"After about 10 a.m., it takes an unbelievably long time - about three to five minutes per page - to input [student information]," says Kimberly Gillette, the international student adviser at Minnesota State University's Moorhead campus.

Fortunately for Ms. Gillette, only about 170 of the 7,500 students on campus are from overseas, so she can do most work in the morning before the system bogs down badly. But at larger schools such as Rutgers's main campus in New Brunswick, N.J., with nearly 2,500 international students, the system's slowness is a problem.

"If you call me a year from today I might say it's a good system," says Marcy Cohen, director of the campus's Center for International Faculty and Student Services. "But right now there are so many glitches and variations to deal with it's mind-boggling."

One recent example: SEVIS requires a street address for each student, but at Rutgers (as on many campuses) there are no street addresses for the hundreds of dormitory rooms. Students get their mail through a post office box that is assigned to them throughout their stay. So the information systems experts at the school have had to jury-rig an addressing system.

"I think SEVIS must have been designed by someone from a small liberal-arts college, because it doesn't seem geared to large universities," Cohen says ruefully.

Even so, the INS was reporting Friday that about 3,000 colleges and universities have signed up to use the system.

SEVIS "is up and fully operational," says INS spokesman Chris Bentley. "Modifications to the system have since eliminated the sluggishness," he says.

Advocates for international students worry that glitches in the new system may disrupt innocent students' education or even lead to unjust deportations.

One of the key requirements, for instance, is that any changes to a student's status - dropping below a full courseload or moving to a different address, for instance - be reported immediately through SEVIS.

Missteps on any of these regulations would mean a student was "out of status" - an INS term for no longer being in compliance with visa requirements.

Darryl Zeigler, director of the Office of International Services at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., knows of one student who was not properly registered by a particular deadline.

"In accordance with regulations, I reported this to the INS," Mr. Zeigler wrote in an e-mail interview. "That was the first time I was required to report data to the INS that would adversely affect a student's life. It was not a pleasant experience for me."

Fortunately, he says, the student was able to register late, but was required to apply to the INS for reinstatement of his student status. He was approved and faces no further action.

A common pitfall flagged by administrators at California Polytechnic University's International Center occurs when a student takes an internship or job related to his or her major before official approval comes through from the university.

If students start work before getting an off-campus work authorization, they'll soon discover they are "out of status."

In such a case, students are not able to apply to the INS for reinstatement. They would be advised to leave the US and, if they walked into an INS office, they could be deported. They would have to apply for a new visa and wouldn't be able to work off campus for several months.

Many administrators are ambivalent about the new rules. Yes, it's a hassle, they say, but at least the country is safer.

Others don't believe the country is necessarily safer.

"There's no way, short of putting an electronic band on foreign nationals, to know if they are going to class or not," Ms. Cohen says.

"You can tell faculty to report them if they're absent, but with classes of 500 students, how are they going to know?"

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