INS Claims First Success in Student Tracking

The Immigration and Naturalization Service announced its first success in streamlining information about foreign students in one centralized database, saying they have met the July 1 deadline for a preliminary enrollment period for schools pre-authorized to register foreign students.

INS officials said Tuesday that 260 colleges, language and vocational schools accredited by the Department of Education have logged onto the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. Of them, 98 have completed application forms to register foreign students with their schools.

SEVIS was made law under the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act signed in May. The law requires colleges and universities to make sure foreign students are complying with the terms of their visas, and to report if the students stop showing up for class.  The students' names are also to be flagged if they change majors into chemistry, nuclear physics or other fields of study that may be of interest to terrorists.

"We are going to make sure that those who enter our country to attend a college, actually do what they have agreed to do," said Terrance O'Reilly, associate INS commissioner for field service operations. "This is about guaranteeing that our foreign students live up to their bargain and don't head off to places unknown."

While INS officials call the preliminary data entry a success, the Web site has had only 730 hits up to July 1, and 260 schools is only a tiny fraction of the 74,000 institutions that will ultimately be required to participate if they want to accept foreign students.

Universities had been authorized to provide the information before, though enforcement was limited. INS officials call the new online system a major departure from the paper-driven "antiquated" process that has bogged down the system for decades.

Any information entered into the system by a school, INS agent, port of entry, or State Department office will be available in real-time to all participants in the SEVIS system. An analytical team within the INS will have the sole responsibility of tracking and analyzing all new information entered into the database.

The student visa rule, which also makes sure students are enrolled in a university before a student visa is granted, was proposed after the Sept. 11 terrorist investigation revealed that several of the hijackers were in the United States on student visas but were not attending classes.

Officials have not decided yet how to punish students or schools that do not comply, and whether students will be treated as criminals if they are found to have abused the system. O'Reilly said the number of agents needed to track down students will be determined later.

O'Reilly said the deadline for school applications is January 2003. By 2005, he hopes all SEVIS systems at ports of entry, educational institutions, the Department of State, and the INS will be linked. It's a tall task, O'Reilly said, but it's "definitely doable."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.