NEW YORK – This month marks the first anniversary of a student tracking system that has nabbed 155 individuals in its first year for various suspicious activities, including using forged documents.
The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) (search) is a nationwide electronic system launched last August that houses information on foreign students and exchange visitors to the United States.
Homeland security officials say many of the initial bugs have been worked out, and the system now helps to better protect the homeland.
Prior to SEVIS, "tens of thousands of schools were receiving foreign students and not necessarily within the framework within secure checks and balances," said Russ Knocke, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (search) division. And "it's very much a program to facilitate —not to detract" —foreign-student recruitment.
According to ICE, in the program's first year, 8,737 schools and exchange visitor programs representing more than 9,500 campuses were SEVIS-certified. As of July, more than 770,000 visa-holding students' and exchange visitors' visas had been approved to study in the United States under SEVIS. The database also has records on more than 100,000 of their dependents.
Among the reports, 36,600 potential student violators were reported for not showing up for classes, expulsion, suspension, or failure to maintain a full course load. After investigations into 1,591 of the more serious offenses, 155 were actually arrested.
"It's quite clear that the majority of SEVIS visitors come to enjoy the educational benefits and opportunities that may only exist here in America," Knocke said. "There are those who ... may still see — and they would be mistaken to do so — may still see the immigration system as a potential vulnerability to come to America, exploit the immigration system and carry out their agendas."
Noting that some of the terrorists responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks entered the country on students visas, Knocke said some of the 155 people arrested were taken in for making, selling or using fraudulent documents obtained from information in SEVIS.
Some of them are still in jail, while investigations into others are ongoing.
Asked if some are suspected of participating in planned terror plots, Knocke said: "that's a very fair question … it's extremely difficult to be able to pinpoint an individual and say, 'John Doe is a terrorist and Jane Doe is not.' It is, however, easier to be able to identify a potential nexus to terror by support — the people, the money, the materials — that facilitates the terror network or a criminal network."
Arrests aside, schools and students that were grappling with the system coming online last fall said they're getting the hang of it.
"I do think that students are able to understand the system. I've had students tell me that they feel somehow that it's a better system" said Sheila Schulte, associate director of international student scholar services at the Georgia Institute of Technology (search). "They know that there's communication between the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security and our office."
Georgia Tech's international student enrollment actually increased 11.2 percent this year over last year.
"There's been maybe a few bumps in the road but overall, that's gone into effect, I think, very well," said Kathie Bailey Mathae, the federal relations office for the Association of American Universities (search).
The Red-Tape Visa Process
What's more problematic, school officials say, is the complicated visa-issuing process.
Foreign students are required to have one-on-one interviews with State Department consular officers in their home countries before visas can be approved. Consular officers can waive the interviews, but since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, fewer students are eligible for waivers. Prospective students from countries such as Iran, Syria and Pakistan also have to register with the U.S. government.
Some students have had to wait weeks, if not months, to get an interview, said school officials.
"The [Bush] administration has put a considerable amount of work into addressing some of the problems," Mathae said, noting that the State Department, for example, has directed consulates to give students priority in the visa interview process to make sure they can make the first day of classes. "They really recognize the importance of foreign students to the United States and they've really invested a lot of effort to improve the situation here."
But a new $100 SEVIS fee that will be imposed on students beginning Sept. 1 may be one more obstacle to students coming to America to study, some said.
"That's something else we're anticipating and wondering how that's going to affect enrollment in the future," said Celia Bergman, director of the International Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology. "There are so many obstacles now that are put in the path of the international students."
Added Schulte: "I can imagine sort of the moaning and groaning … to me, it's just one more step that discourages someone from coming to the United States."
A survey released earlier this year by various higher-education groups concluded that many of the nation's top academic schools are experiencing significant declines in the number of international graduate student applications compared to last year. Part of that reason, the study said, was because of the "unwelcoming climate" in the United States for foreign students, which is "demonstrated most visibly by the difficulty they face in securing a visa in a timely manner."
"I think anyone looking at the kind of regulations [the United States now has] ... would say we're making it much more difficult, we're not being encouraging and welcoming, at least in terms of how our laws are functioning," said Catheryn Cotten, director of the International Office at Duke University.
The visa process also is prohibiting some students from returning to their home countries for breaks.
"I have definitely spoken to students who are very anxious about returning home and it's a real shame to me that … they know if they go and if they have an expired visa and they need to get a new visa, it may be an indeterminate amount of time before they can come back," Schulte said. "It's a tough decision, it involves a lot of anguish."
Cotten also said that some students get second looks if they're coming to America to study "sensitive" subjects such as biotechnology. Government "technology alert lists" also list technologies such as supercomputing that, if exported from the United States, could make this country vulnerable and its strengths exploited.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Cotten said, the technology alert lists and "sensitive" subject categories are scrutinized even more when foreign students apply for visas, since they could feasibly be used for terrorist purposes.
"In the larger scheme, they all sort of pull together to the same kinds of issues; technology usually has military applications and so on," Cotten sad.
One more obstacle the United States is facing in foreign student recruitment is that other countries like Australia, England and Canada have stepped up their own recruitment efforts.
"They are going after the same best and brightest international students the United States has been interested in attracting," Mathae said.
Homeland security officials said they hope the message gets out that the United States welcomes international students — so long as they abide by the rules.
"America is very much a welcoming country to foreign students and exchange visitors," Knocke said, "and the SEVIS system is intended to facilitate their interests in coming to America to take advantage of our universities and exchange programs, which are world renowned and to further complement America's need for homeland security."