Student tracking system launches

INS information about SEVIS

The first piece of an automated foreign student tracking system went online July 1 and generated surprisingly brisk traffic from dozens of schools, the Immigration and Naturalization Service said.

SEVIS, or Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, so far permits schools to fill out electronic forms to apply for eligibility to accept foreign students. In its first two days of operation, "several dozen" schools applied for user identifications and passwords and then filled out electronic "I-17" petitions for permission to accept foreign students.

"We expected a very slow start" and were surprised by the number of colleges, vocational schools and other schools that promptly took to the Web-based system, INS spokesman Bill Strassberger said.

Eventually, INS will use SEVIS to keep closer track of foreign students in the United States. Schools will be required to report electronically when students arrive, change addresses, change majors or are expelled or quit school.

The need to keep closer track of the 1 million-plus foreign students in the United States was prompted by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. A number of the terrorists had been students at flight schools in the United States; one entered the country on a student visa and at least two applied for student visas while here. In an embarrassing episode for INS, two of the applications were approved and visas were mailed six months after the attacks in which the terrorists died.

The $38 million SEVIS system is supposed to be fully operational by the end of January, but it seems doubtful INS will meet that deadline, according to Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education.

"SEVIS is up and running, but up and running in a fairly primitive form," said Hartle, whose organization represents more than 1,800 colleges and universities. "Until batch processing is available, most institutions won't be able to use it efficiently," he said July 3.

Batch processing will enable schools to prepare reports on foreign students and transmit them to INS in a batch. Without that, schools will have to file each report online separately.

INS officials are still developing batch processing specifications and may not finish them in time for schools to buy the necessary software and configure their computer systems to meet the January deadline, he said.

But Hartle gave INS high marks for its progress so far.

"The important thing is that the INS set a deadline for themselves and they hit it," he said. "They have made remarkable progress in implementing SEVIS. Frankly, they have made progress no one could have expected them to achieve a year ago."

SEVIS is one of several automated systems INS is developing to keep tabs on foreigners who come to the United States. The agency is also designing a computerized entry/exit system that would record foreign visitors' arrival and alert the agency if they have not left by the time their visas expire. That system is scheduled to be in place by the end of 2004.

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