The Alphabet Soup of National Security

Confusing national programs that track international students only hurt this school, this country


Following the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, there have been a vast number of programs to monitor international students in institutions of higher education. Investigations have showed that one person involved in the 1993 attack and two of the 9/11 terrorists were staying in the United States on expired student visas. The most illogical conclusion to derive from these attacks was the path chosen by US legislators: to crack down on international students. Overall, only 2 percent of foreigners enter the United States through student visas each year.1

The resulting security has proved excessive for international students. The loss of their civil liberties here in the US far outweighs the need for this "national security." According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on January 31, 2003, international students have been opting for countries such as Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand for their education. These students should abide by visa guidelines but only be subjected to minimal tracking services that show that they are in the country. Until any changes are made, US tracking programs will continue to make the country look less and less appealing (and more appalling) to others across the globe.

In the 2002 fiscal year, an estimated $12 billion2 was brought into the struggling US economy by 550,000 foreign students (and their dependents) attending 74,000 different institutions of higher education. At UT, there were an estimated 350 students that had to register with Immigration and Naturalization Services (that has since become part of the US Department of Homeland Security and has split responsibilities with various departments, such as the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services) offices by the end of March 2003,3 and all UT foreign students- that numbered 4,804 in the Fall 2002 semester- were manually entered into SEVIS, with International Office administrators scrambling to keep up with the latest federal programs.

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Progression of Federal Tracking Programs


In June 1995, the INS established a task force in response to the 1993 World Trade Center attacks that studied the threat of authorizing student visas. Based largely off this task force, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) was written to more stringently monitor all non-Americans residing in this country. IIRIRA was enacted on September 30, 1996, with sections based on international students, such as mandating tracking programs that developed into SEVP and SEVIS. Section 641 of the IIRIRA requires the INS to collect information on an ongoing basis from schools and exchange programs relating to nonimmigrant foreign students and exchange visitors during the course of their stay in the United States, using electronic reporting technology to the fullest extent practicable. It catalogs and classifies the identity and current address of the alien, visa classification, date of visa issuance or classification granted, the academic status of the foreigner (full-time vs. part-time), and academic disciplinary actions taken against the foreigner due to criminal conviction.


The 1995 task force and the IIRIRA called for a pilot program to study and "regulate" international students. In June 1997, the Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students (CIPRIS) was established. It was strictly a "throw-away" program that started compiling specific personal information of international students. It concluded in October 1999, but its legacy continued through SEVP and SEVIS.


The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) split responsibilities with SEVIS. Reengineered from CIPRIS, SEVP is a program covering the F, J, and M nonimmigrant visa categories. It looks specifically at visa issuance, admissions to the US, benefit requests, and information reporting.

Work on SEVP began in the summer and fall of 2000. The 9/11 attacks prompted Congress to press harder for SEVP, setting a January 30, 2003 "full functionality" date for the program through the USA Patriot Act.


The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) is a heavily detailed electronic database. Information about each international student used to be done by pen and paper, but it is now done through a behemoth database developed by Electronic Data Systems Corporation, which was founded by former 1992 Presidential candidate Ross Perot, Sr. As of June 2003, UTIMCO has 5,096 shares, worth around $110,000, in the company.

The first real-time interactive software was available on July 1, 2002. Section 416 of the USA Patriot Act requires colleges and universities throughout the nation to enroll all of their international students into SEVIS. It set a "full functionality" date of SEVIS for January 30, 2003, but due to various problems, extended the deadline. The Patriot Act gave $36.8 million to partially fund SEVIS, and colleges across the country have given additional fees ranging from $50-$100 per international student to help fund the program. UT currently does not have such a fee, although there are talks of charging international students a $100 fee specifically for SEVIS. Additionally, there is a $50 per semester "International Student Services" fee that goes partially to a systems analyst who enters in the SEVIS information. All schools had to comply with the system by August 1, 2003.

-Arnone, Michael (2002, September 6). Colleges Expect the Worst in Preparing for New System to Track Foreign Students. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

For more information, go to Stop SEVIS!


The Interim Student and Exchange Authentication System (ISEAS) was explicitly a short-term program that provided electronic verification of each international student and exchange visitor visa until SEVIS was fully implemented. Bugs and various problems have plagued SEVIS, so ISEAS was a weak attempt to smooth things over until the "full functionality" deadline set for SEVIS. Colleges were too focused on SEVIS and its latest developments, and not much information was given about ISEAS to implement the program by its symbolic September 11, 2002 deadline.

-Arnone, Michael (2002, October 11). Problems Plague Interim System to Track Foreign Students. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
-Steven Edson, acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Visas, testifying to the Terrorism and Government Information Subcommittee (Senate Judiciary Committee) on October 9, 2002. U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) presiding as Chairwoman.


An entry-exit tracking program was also mandated by the IIRIRA and reinforced by the USA Patriot Act. Also implemented on September 11, 2002, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) extensively tracked immigrants and  international students. Each year they are in this country, international students must  report to INS offices to be interviewed, fingerprinted, and photographed. Under NSEERS, these students must report change of addresses, must depart from designated airports, with the departure documented, and upon each re-entry, the registration process must be repeated. INS officials in Baltimore, Memphis, and Arlington have even collected bank-account and credit-card numbers.

NSEERS is considered the most blatantly discriminating federal tracking program in the US. It targets citizens of predominantly Muslim countries, ages 16 years and older. Many thought that it applied only to males, but one female was harassed by three INS agents on December 19, 2003 for not registering with NSEERS. At 6am, they searched her and her house before taking her to the INS office for five hours of questioning. They subsequently entered her into the "Special Registration database" and released her without charge or apology.

According to the Washington Times, in January 2003, Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) slipped an amendment in to a $390 billion appropriations bill that would have eliminated the $16.8 million President Bush requested for NSEERS, but it was found and re-inserted into the bill. Before NSEERS, only people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Sudan were required to register. Since NSEERS began in the fall of 2002, citizens of North Korea and 24 majority Muslim countries are required to register with the INS. Groups such as the ACLU, United Methodist Committee on Relief, National Council of La Raza and the Council on American Islamic Relations have opposed NSEERS since it blatantly violates the civil liberties of Muslims and other immigrants.

NSEERS has since been abolished for US VISIT.

-Bishara, Fahad (2002, October 15). INS overstepping bounds. The Daily Trojan.
-Salkever, Alex (2003, January 23). The INS Hurts Uncle Sam Most of All. BusinessWeek.
-(2003, May 2). At Justice, NSEERS Spells Data Chaos. BusinessWeek Online.
-(2003, April 1). Pakistanis in U.S. Among the Most Affected By INS Registration Edict. Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.


The US Visitor and Immigration Status Indication Technology System (US VISIT) is an even more extensive program than its predecessor NSEERS. Founded in April 2003, this program collects information compiled by different agencies- SEVIS for one- and uses biometric data such as fingerprints, facial photographs, and iris scans. By the end of 2003 US VISIT intends to have its first phase completed, which entails installing biometric-measurement devices at all international airports and seaports.

This system will keep the entry-exit requirements of NSEERS, with men from 25 mostly-Arab and –Muslim countries undergoing periodic procedures during their stay in the US and each time they come in and out of the country.

-Lichtblau, Eric and Markoff, John (2004, May 24). U.S. Nearing Deal on Way to Track Foreign Visitors. New York Times.
-(2003, May 16). Sevis Data Will Be Fed Into New System That Will Track Travel by All Immigrants to U.S.. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

There are still other programs like "Visa Condor" and "Visa Mantis" that monitor  international students here on visas. This year, around 25,000 will register under Visa Mantis and 75,000 under Visa Condor that target those who study "sensitive" areas, mainly science subjects like nuclear engineering.


Attempts to implement each of these programs have proved that national security can be disastrous and oppressive at the same time. Students have had interviews close to the start of school in offices far from their college, making some miss semesters altogether. Many have been detained and harassed by officials looking to register at INS offices, as shown by the thousands looking to "comply" with INS mandates in December 2002 in California. Here in Texas, detainments from registering in Houston offices overflowed into Beaumont jails, where innocent men born in Middle Eastern countries were forced to share cells with convicted rapists and murders.4 Instead of dealing with multiple day detainments, some (especially in Beaumont) actually preferred deportation. During this entire ordeal, INS officials must have realized that terrorists do not voluntarily sit through long lines for hours on end to submit all their personal information to prying officials for a chance at detainment.

Additionally, problems have arisen from switching to electronic databases, such as SEVIS and ISEAS, from the pen-and-paper carbon copy forms. The time constraints set by the USA Patriot Act accelerated the process and increased workloads of entering information into databases by hand. Additionally, the INS replaced person-to-person training programs for SEVIS held by database constructor Electronic Data Systems with videos and telephone help lines, which merely added to the confusion. The first SEVIS software released was plagued with bugs, and in the first 3 months of availability, only 258 institutions had used it. The INS had released wrong school codes, which didn’t help the schools meet the initial January 30, 2003 deadline (that was pushed back to February 15, then to August 1 for various problems). Penalties for schools not meeting the deadline stretched as far as losing their I-20 forms, the visa eligibility forms. Last fall, UT reported 4,804 international students and losing these students would have proved disastrous, especially in the science and engineering research fields.

Additionally, SEVIS only handles the F-1 and M-1 visas, and the State Department handles J-1 visas, which was problematic since the State Department released its own regulations - months after the INS - on September 10, one day before the ISEAS implementation deadline of September 11.

These programs hurt our nation and our schools more than they help since international students bring not only foreign money to our economy but a much needed outside perspective. Many international students at UT are primarily found in graduate science and business research fields. International students need to brought into areas such as Architecture, Social Work, Nursing, Fine Arts, Communication, Education, and Liberal Arts to strengthen the programs. The US should establish a free flowing system of international students coming to this country and US students going overseas -- last year, there were only 1,591 UT students who studied abroad, or about 1/3 of international students who came to UT. To improve relations with the rest of the world, and to prevent terrorism, there should be global cooperation and moves to scale back programs that alienates so many non-American residents.