Tech snags delay INS student tracker

SEVIS information page

Last-minute technical snags forced the Immigration and Naturalization Service to give schools a two-week reprieve before they begin using a new online system to report information on foreign students, teachers and exchange visitors.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), which was scheduled to go live Jan. 30, is intended to make it easier for the agency to keep track of people who enter the country on education-related visas.

"As we were getting close, on [Jan. 29], it became apparent some of the schools were having problems accessing the system," INS spokesman Christopher Bentley said. One problem was a demand overload on INS' servers, slowing system response, which he said has been fixed.

The other issue was that some schools found that interfaces they had built or bought from vendors to enable their systems to interact with SEVIS were not working well, he said. The agency has extended the compliance deadline to Feb. 15 so that INS' help desk can work with individual schools.

By that deadline, schools must report information such as address, visa type and course of study on new students, faculty and staff. They must compile and report data on current foreign visitors by Aug. 1 and then update the data regularly.

Immigration law already requires schools to collect much of the information, Bentley said. However, they were not required to regularly report it to INS.

Congress ordered SEVIS in 1996, but the 2001 terrorist attacks gave the program new urgency. The compliance deadline was moved from 2005 to 2003.

Schools that don't participate 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, and about 2,300 are still waiting. INS has been testing the system since October 2002, hurrying to meet its own deadline, Bentley said. Early testers found problems such as an inability to retract incorrect information or enter "Ph.D." as a degree name.

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

The Justice Department's intent is that the system will alert authorities about 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.

Some universities feel they've been unfairly rushed to compliance, even given the threat of terrorism.

"SEVIS is like a moving target," said Barbara Warren, director of tax and payroll at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which co- designed a system with vendor G1440 Inc. "They tell you what they want 15 minutes before they want it."

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. That's the key technological hurdle — consolidating data from various systems, said Larry Fiorino, chief executive officer at G1440 in Columbia, Md.

Some schools, including American University in Washington, D.C., chose to create their own systems rather than buy from a vendor. American already had all of its data standardized on systems from a single vendor, Datatel Inc., said Paul Langan, the school's special project team leader for software.

"Fortunately, American University already had an integrated computer system that maintained all of our data in a common format, which would allow us to develop a single application," he said. n

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Student Tracker

When fully deployed, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System will track data and issue Immigration and Naturalization Service documents for foreign nationals visiting the United States under these visas:

* F Visa — Academic students.

* M Visa — Vocational students.

* J Visa — Visitors on cultural exchange programs.

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