Student Visa Program May Be Delayed

As college students gear up for the fall semester, technicians and foreign student advisers on campuses across America are scrambling to comply with federal regulations requiring them to electronically track their student visa holders.

The database, part of a change in Immigration and Naturalization Service rules, is required by law to be in place by Jan. 30, 2003. But many schools say they won't be able to make the deadline -- preventing foreign students from attending classes -- particularly since the Justice Department dropped its technical training program for universities.

"There is a real concern out there among all of the schools with any significant number of foreign students about whether they will be ready to do their reporting," said Victor Johnson, a director of international student services for the NAFSA Association for International Educators, which is working as a go-between for the schools and federal government on the project.

The INS was supposed to provide information to the estimated 10,000 or so schools and institutions that must be on board with the Student Exchange and Visa Information System that tracks students.

Instead, one federal contract employee who was supposed to travel to college campuses this summer to provide technical assistance to the schools said his job was abruptly cancelled when the INS decided to provide remote troubleshooting for administrators when needed. The contractor, who asked not to be named, said that's hardly enough.

"They're going to wait until the 11th hour, just before January 2003, and the bloodbath will begin," said the source. "There is a lot of frustration. Nobody is saying it is a stupid program, but the speed of implementation and the ability of all the schools to comply with it is questionable."

SEVIS was created in response to the Sept. 11 attacks and fears that foreign visa holders weren't being effectively tracked once they came into the country to attend classes.

The program, which requires schools to track not only foreign students but traveling scholar visa holders, is to collect not only registered visa holders' names, addresses and phone numbers, but also their class schedules and any changes to personal information such as when and if a student was arrested, dropped classes or dropped out of school. Officials working on campuses said new rules might even include particulars on students' coursework.

Rules prior to Sept. 11 did not include any disciplined method for tracking students who violated their student visas by dropping out or skipping classes once they were enrolled.

If schools don't process the information by the January deadline, the penalty is on the student.

"They will no longer be able to process the visa," said Dan Kane, spokesman for the INS.

The laid-off contractor said that 20 percent of the country's schools have 80 percent of the foreign students coming into the U.S. each year. According to figures compiled by the Institute of International Education, 547,876 students held student visas in the 2001-2002 academic year.

For schools that enroll thousands of students, that's a lot of data and daily updating to reconcile at a considerable cost. Bigger schools will also need the so-called batch software to efficiently gather and send large amounts of information, and that will cost extra, the INS said.

The University of Iowa, for instance, faces start-up costs of more than $50,000 and so far has no technical person on board to handle the new manpower needs in the office.

"There's a great deal of skepticism within the foreign student advisory field as to when, or if, all this is going to be ready," said Susan Fullenkamp, a foreign student adviser for the university.

INS officials deny there is any widespread problem with compliance, and noted that 500 schools were already registered and beginning to use the system.

"Everyone seems to be coming on board," said Kane.

The State University of West Georgia, for example, which has about 150 foreign visa holders to track each year, has been involved in a pilot program of this nature since 1997.

"I think it will be difficult for the large schools," said Sylvia Shortt, an international student adviser at SUWG. "The rest of the country doesn't necessarily have the experience of the pilot program's expertise."

Christie Dawson, a spokeswoman for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said there may be problems but they aren't insurmountable. Furthermore, all its members -- which include nearly 430 public institutions and more than 3 million students -- are eager to get on board.

"We want our campuses to be safe, for both American students and international students too," Dawson said. "We're not going to get into an us-versus-them thing with the INS. Everyone is on the same page and working on the deadlines that were set."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.