Closer watch on foreign students

The Beacon Journal


Closer watch on foreign students

Universities' connection to computerized system to make it easier for INS to track movements

Beacon Journal staff writer


Posted on Mon, Jan. 27, 2003

Big Brother is paying closer attention to foreign students.

Thousands of U.S. colleges and universities are being tied into an Immigration and Naturalization Service computerized system tracking the movements of noncitizens.

That's raising the anxiety level of students like Hari Parthasarathi, a 22-year-old native of India studying at the University of Akron.

In the United States to continue his education, Parthasarathi says he has no reason to fear immigration authorities and he understands why, in the wake of Sept. 11, the government is keeping closer tabs on foreigners.

Yet he expresses some concern when he hears that universities are feeding academic and personal information to the huge INS database.

Foreign students ``are new here,'' he says. ``You come from India -- crossing oceans. We just don't want something to come in our way'' of completing studies. Students are ``getting intimidated without actually knowing what's going on.''

The computerized tracking system -- called Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS -- is aimed at ensuring that the more than half-million foreign students in the United States take the courses they were approved to take and attend the schools they told the government they would attend.

In the past, colleges and universities used a paper-based system and kept the information in files. The INS only had access to the data when it asked.

The new system grew out of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; a Jordanian student was charged in the attacks. By 1996, the INS was planning a centralized system to track international students.

The Sept. 11 attacks prompted Congress to step up creation of SEVIS. At least one Sept. 11 hijacker, Hani Hanjour, entered the country on a student visa, but never showed up for classes.

So colleges are racing to put information online, spending money they can ill afford in this time of tight budgets.

David Ayers, director of the University of Akron's international programs office, says the university spent about $60,000 to move to the computerized system. This amount did not include labor costs.

There are two deadlines.

By Thursday, campuses must be able to submit information on new international students to SEVIS. Those schools that haven't been approved to log in won't be able to enroll new foreign students.

Then, by Aug. 1, information on existing students must be in the system.

Ayers says students who stay in compliance with their immigration status -- promptly reporting address and academic-program changes and maintaining a full course load -- have nothing to fear.

As with the old paper system, students who fall out of compliance can face penalties, including deportation. But educators say now that the government is getting the information almost instantaneously, the stakes are especially high. They believe a backup plan is needed to deal with the possibility of a technical glitch or a data-entry error jeopardizing a foreign student's legal status.

``The important thing here is that we have the security that we need and we're able to maintain international student exchanges,'' says Ursula Oaks, spokeswoman for the Association of International Educators in Washington, D.C. ``We need to find a balance.''

UA and Kent State University will use software to gather information about foreign students from various administration computers. That way they can quickly find changes that must be reported through the SEVIS system and work with students to keep them in compliance.

``We're not here to catch them,'' says Barbara Machler, an adviser in Kent State's international student office. ``We're here to help them.''

Kelly Carmack, an immigration specialist with the KSU office, says students are worried about SEVIS.

``But I think it's going to make it easier for us to help them,'' she says.

Some educators are troubled that their relationships with international students could change as a result of SEVIS.

UA's Ayers says students may see his international programs office as being much more ``police-like.'' More than 900 international students and researchers are enrolled at UA.

``We've never had to report (the information) unless we were asked by the INS,'' Ayers says. ``Now the reporting is routine and regular.''

Charles Nieman, director of international student and scholars services at Kent State, says campus officials are working hard to tell the approximately 800 affected foreigners at Kent's main campus about the new system.

That way, he says, ``they hear it from us rather than the rumor mill,'' which could be spreading incorrect information.

Yonathan Admassu, a 30-year-old from Ethiopia studying at UA, says he's not all that bothered by SEVIS.

He's more apprehensive about a relatively new federal policy that requires male visitors from certain countries to register at INS offices by specific dates. So far, Ethiopia is not on the list. But one of Admassu's friends -- a student from Eritrea studying in Michigan -- had to register.

``He has lived here for three years,'' Admassu said, ``and all of a sudden he's being suspected.''

Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or