- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Universities across the country are scrambling to comply with new federal regulations requiring administrators to set up electronic databases that would track foreign student-visa holders.
By law, universities must have the new Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) part of a change in Immigration and Naturalization Service rules operating by Jan. 30.
But many school officials said last week they may not make that deadline, which, according to preliminary reports, would prohibit universities from issuing immigration documents for foreign students or prevent already enrolled international students from attending classes next winter.
School officials said the costs associated with purchasing the software and the lack of adequately trained administrators could prevent their schools from meeting the deadline. The new system could cost a university up to $25,000 for software and maintenance and requires that a number of employees be trained to use it.
School officials said they want the INS to assure them that the system will work before they purchase the necessary equipment. They also said the INS has not yet released its final regulations, leaving many officials with unanswered questions five months before going live with the program.
"A vast majority of the universities want international students to study at their campuses," said Chris Simmons, assistant director of government relations at the American Council on Education, which represents 1,800 colleges and universities nationwide. "But the schools don't want to be investing in something that may not work. We want to make sure that this is high quality, most efficient and the most effective system that's out there. We want to get this thing going, too."
INS officials deny there is any widespread problem with compliance and said 500 schools are already registered and beginning to use the system.
The program will affect thousands of students in the United States. Some 547,876 persons held student visas in the 2001-2002 academic year, according to statistics compiled by the Institute of International Education. Some 514,723 students held visas in the 1999-2000 school year, statistics show.
University officials say there are still lots of questions that remain about the program, including what sort of information the INS will want them to submit by Jan. 30.
"We're still waiting," said Karen Hartwig, assistant director of admissions at the University of Iowa, which has about 1,800 international students. "And we're afraid that once we do get it, we'll have to rush to write the program, learn how to use it, get any bugs out before that deadline. We certainly hope to be ready. We don't want to lose our ability to enroll international students."
One question is: Must universities enter already enrolled students by that deadline or just new students?
"We don't exactly know who has to be logged in by that date," said Ted Goode, director of services for international students and scholars at the University of California at Berkeley. Berkeley has about 5,500 people it would need to log into the system before the deadline, which Mr. Goode called an impossible task.
Universities like Berkeley that enroll a large number of international students have asked the government to implement a batch software, which school officials say will efficiently gather and be able to send large amounts of information at once.
The batch software has not yet been written, but should be ready for distribution sometime this fall.
The INS has been under pressure from Congress to have SEVIS running since the September 11 attacks. For three decades, the INS required universities to compile information on international students. But because of the volume of paperwork it received, the INS told schools in 1988 to keep the files on campus.
The INS came under increased scrutiny last fall when it was learned that all 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks entered the United States legally. Three of the hijackers were in the country on student visas.
One hijacker, Hani Hanjour, entered the United States on a student visa but failed to show up at the campus where he was supposed to study. Two others, including Mohamed Atta, entered on travel visas and switched to student visas.
Federal officials have said SEVIS will help the INS receive information sooner. SEVIS requires schools to track foreign students and traveling-scholar visa holders. It requires schools to collect registered visa holders' names, addresses and telephone numbers and their class schedules.
Schools will be required to notify the INS within 24 hours if a student doesn't show up or drops out and to report the student's status after each term. A student will have 30 days rather than six months to show up on campus after entering the country.
The system will link every U.S. consulate with every INS port of entry and all 74,000 educational institutions eligible to host foreign students.

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