Homeland Security at UT: Foreign students face tight security

By Wes Ferguson
Daily Texan
April 29, 2003, Tuesday

Teri Albrecht hopes that what she's been doing all semester will eventually be of some benefit to students.

Albrecht, hired to advise the University of Texas-Austin's international community on immigration issues, has spent the past three months recording UT student information in a vast government database that will be used to monitor the whereabouts, enrollment and course load of international students across the nation.

It has not been an easy task.

The database, called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, has inexplicably shut down for whole afternoons. Other times, Albrecht has sat with students for hours as they waited for the system to process a page of information, only to start the task anew on another page.

"Sometimes we'd just give up and start again the next day," she said.

But after three months with SEVIS, Albrecht said most of the glitches seem to have been resolved. The University's International Office expects to have finished registering most of its 4,500 students by the end of the week, and the office has worked with University mainframe programmers to transmit many students' files at once, saving time and resources.

But not all of the questions surrounding SEVIS have been resolved. Advisers are trying to toe the line between their role of helping students with their new task of compiling data for the government.

"A lot of people feel like we're in policing mode," Albrecht said. "But I still think we can strike a good balance between our role advising students and our reporting duties."

The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly Immigration and Naturalization Services, maintains that SEVIS simply automates a data collection process that used to be done manually, offering government agencies instant access to student files.

But INS didn't really keep track of students once they entered the country, Albrecht said. Now the government will maintain a running history of each international student's stay in the United States.

Another concern, Albrecht said, is that quirks and limitations of the SEVIS software -- and not government regulations -- are determining some student immigration policies.

Albrecht said the time spent dealing with SEVIS has not cut into the time she spends advising students. If anything, face time has increased as students have new questions about their status within the system.

"By getting all students into SEVIS, we're actually doing more advising when they come to pick up their [registration forms]. Students have more questions," she said.

Albrecht said that she hasn't heard much frustration from students upset by the new regulations.

But she does worry that the time spent advising students has cut into the time she used to spend advising on day-to-day matters. It's not uncommon to see a couple dozen students lounging outside the advising office, hoping for a chance to meet with an adviser.

"There's quite a wait," she said. "The students are very patient."

And the work will not end when the last student is registered in SEVIS, Albrecht said. With required updates every time a student moves to a new address and after the 12th class day of each semester, SEVIS will continue to take up blocks of advisers' time.

But Albrecht hopes that SEVIS will eventually streamline some processes that students find tedious, such as applying for extensions or renewing their visas.

"It's not all worked out smoothly, and I think there are glitches to come," Albrecht said, "but in the long run I hope it will work for the students' benefit."