Electronic Tracking System Monitors Foreign Students
By DIANA JEAN SCHEMO
New York Times
February 17, 2003
WASHINGTON, Feb. 16 — Mandated after terrorists first bombed the World Trade Center a decade ago and financed after they destroyed it, a vast new electronic tracking system became the central element on Saturday in the government's effort to keep tabs on nearly a million foreign students and scholars in this country.
Through the system, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or Sevis, schools, colleges and universities will send the federal government the names, addresses, courses and majors of foreign students, as well as information on any disciplinary actions against them.
Institutions that the government has not yet certified to log on to the system may no longer enroll foreign students.
"This is part of a national strategy for the national security of the United States — not the end-all and be-all, but a part of that," said Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Created after the Sept. 11 attacks brought new scrutiny to foreign students and a series of blunders exposed an immigration agency in disarray, the system is as much an effort to reassure a skittish public as it is to catch warning signs. One of the Sept. 11 hijackers entered the United States on a student visa, but never turned up for classes. The agency also issued student visas to two of the hijackers six months after they died ramming planes into the trade center.
The tracking system signals a new era for university officials and for students, particularly those from Muslim nations.
For directors of international programs, it means a daunting new role as government watchdogs. They worry that mistakes in advising foreign students or entering data, which might never have been discovered under the old paper-based system, could have drastic consequences for students.
Given Sevis's instant nature, "there's no room to correct the record for errors," said Robert J. Locke of the University of North Carolina. "That's our biggest fear in the implementation of this, that students and scholars may unwittingly fall between the cracks and become illegal."
So far, the immigration agency has approved 3,900 institutions to use Sevis, but 1,748 more are still waiting for approval.
In addition to Sevis, I.N.S. offices are undertaking a separate registration, annually fingerprinting, photographing and interviewing men from 24 mostly Muslim countries.
Before Sept. 11, said Victor Johnson, an associate executive director at the Association of International Educators, international education was seen as a bridge to future leaders across the globe.
The attacks "changed us into a country where there's fear about these people coming in," Mr. Johnson said. "While greater vigilance is certainly needed, this broad net is catching all kinds of people who are no danger whatsoever."
In Congress, however, scrutiny of the student visa system prompted tough new measures. Faced with reports that thousands of schools approved to accept foreign students did not actually exist, lawmakers ordered I.N.S. officials to visit each one and review its record-keeping before approving it for Sevis.
Larry Bell, director of international students and scholars at the University of Colorado, got a first-hand look at this new world, after local immigration agents detained a half-dozen Iranian students in Colorado during special registration. One of those students, Yashar Zendehdel, had fallen below the minimum course load for a full-time student when he switched majors and dropped a course. The law allows foreign students to do that with university approval, but Mr. Bell said local immigration officials appeared unfamiliar with the law, and threatened to deport Mr. Zendehdel.
"It's had a fairly chilling effect on students," Mr. Bell said.
Far from home, they take care to follow the rules, he said. "Then they hear of students who did everything right and still get the book thrown at them," he said.
Jorge Martinez, a Department of Justice spokesman, rejected the accusations of some students and higher education officials that the special registration amounted to racial profiling of a sort.
"The criteria has absolutely nothing to do with race, religion or ethnicity," Mr. Martinez said. "It is totally based on national security considerations," tied to intelligence and other reports of where terrorist groups are active. "Everyone who was detained was here illegally."
Mr. Martinez would not comment on the specifics of Mr. Zendehdel's case or any other, but countered that "federal law supersedes decisions made by universities."
Mr. Zendehdel said that, for him, American policy boiled down to his 40 hours with immigration agents he saw as intent on forcing him out of the country. While he once urged his brother, sister and friends to study in the United States, he said, he now advises them to go elsewhere.