INS launches student tracker

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The Immigration and Naturalization Service today launched its Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), which will compile an extensive database of information about foreign students, teachers and exchange visitors.

Jan. 30 was the deadline for universities and other organizations with foreign students to begin reporting data on new foreign students, faculty and staff. However, the INS granted a grace period until Feb. 15 for new users of the system.

During the summer, schools must compile and report data on current foreign visitors and finish by Aug. 1. Then they must update the data regularly. INS wants to collect such information as students' addresses, visa classification, country of citizenship and credit hours completed.

Current immigration law already requires schools to collect much of the information, said INS spokesman Christopher Bentley. However, they were not required to regularly report it to INS. Congress ordered the SEVIS system in 1996, but the 2001 terrorist attacks gave the program new urgency, and the compliance deadline was moved from 2005 to 2003.

Schools that don't take part in SEVIS will no longer be able to accept foreign students or issue immigration documents, Bentley added. About 600,000 foreign visitors in the United States will be subject to the reporting requirements, he said.

Meanwhile, INS is still working to certify schools that have applied to participate, he said. INS has approved more than 3,000 schools, with about 2,300 still waiting.

EDS developed the $38 million system for the agency. INS has been testing the system since October 2002, hurrying to meet its own deadline today, Bentley said. Early testers found problems such as being unable to retract incorrect information, or to enter "Ph.D." as a degree name.

Everything is ready now, Bentley said. "The system was fully operational on Jan. 1," he said. "We're confident that as people send information in batch mode, the system will be able to handle it."

Schools have taken different approaches to compliance. Some smaller institutions with only a few foreign students and faculty can simply enter the information directly into the SEVIS Web interface, Bentley said. Schools with hundreds or thousands of records to report have implemented commercial software or designed their own systems to automate the collection of the data and send it to SEVIS in a batch process.

The Justice Department's intent is that the system will alert authorities when international students arrive or leave the country, the ports of entry they use and whether they are taking the courses they signed up for. Some of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers were in the United States on student visas.

INS' refusal to back down from today's deadline has caused some difficulties, said Barbara Warren, director of tax and payroll at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which co-designed a system with a vendor. Johns Hopkins had to consolidate about 5,000 international students' records into one database and then build interfaces to the student registration system and to the payroll system.

"We implemented it back in August [2002] and we've been happy with the system. However, SEVIS is like a moving target," she said. "They tell you what they want 15 minutes before they want it."

However, Bentley said the institutions are ready to comply.

"Once it became apparent that INS was going to meet the congressionally mandated deadlines, and the reality of SEVIS has become more and more apparent, there have been very few user concerns," he said.

INS doesn't consider SEVIS finished yet, Bentley said. Like almost all software, it will evolve and improve over time.

"A lot of the work we're going to do with the information will be trends and analysis to make sure there is nothing out of the ordinary," he said. "If there is something out of the ordinary, the question becomes, is this something we need to watch for security reasons, or something we need to fix about the database itself?"

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