INS preps student tracking system

On July 1, some U.S. colleges and trade schools will begin using a nationwide computerized system to keep track of foreign students for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The system, SEVIS, or the Student Exchange and Visitor Information System, is designed to keep the INS informed promptly of changes in the status of foreign students. Schools will notify the INS via the Internet when foreign students enroll, drop out or are expelled from school. They must also inform the INS of address changes, name changes and even changes in fields of study.

The SEVIS system was ordered by Congress in 1996, but was staunchly resisted by some colleges and schools until after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Several of the terrorists were in the United States attending flight schools on student visas.

Providing the INS with quick access to current information on foreign students should improve the agency's ability to enforce immigration laws "and keep track of this group of noncitizens," said Attorney General John Ashcroft, who announced May 10 that the SEVIS system is nearly ready for use.

Colleges and technical schools will be able to tap into the system on a voluntary basis beginning July 1, and use of the system will become mandatory Jan. 1, Ashcroft said.

SEVIS will replace a paper-based reporting system that requires documents to be mailed between schools and the INS, and data then to be entered into a mainframe database. In the announcement May 10, Ashcroft called the system "a slow, antiquated, paper-driven reporting system" that is incapable of keeping track of more than a million foreigners who attend schools in the United States each year.

Ashcroft said the new system was developed in consultation with colleges and universities.

Key features of the SEVIS include:

* The system will notify schools when students arrives at ports of entry, and schools will be required to report to the INS if students fail to appear for enrollment.

* Schools must report significant changes in students' status promptly, including dropouts and changes in courses of study.

* The system should make student visa fraud more difficult. Unused student visa forms, which now can be stolen and sold, will be canceled, Ashcroft said.

The INS may have a SEVIS Web site online by July 1, but the SEVIS system likely will not be usable because schools are unlikely to have the needed software, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education.

No software is available yet because the INS has not set final specifications for developing it, he said.

SEVIS is an extraordinarily complex system that is to link all U.S. ports of entry with State Department consulates overseas and 74,000 schools, Hartle said. "Its complexity dwarfs anything the INS has tried to do before."

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