More scrutiny for international students

All post-secondary institutions will be required to make changes to the way international students are recorded and tracked upon entry to the country starting in January.

Institutions that accept exchange students are required to report those students to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Previously, this was done largely through paperwork traded between the INS and the schools that the foreign students were to attend.

Starting in January, a database called the Student and Exchange Visitor Program will attempt to compile all information on all international students electronically.

The system allows the INS to obtain information about the international students before they arrive in the country and makes it easier to track their progress.

Administrators involved in foreign student education will use the SEVP database through a computer program called the Student Exchange and Visitor Information System.

Chris Bentley, a spokesperson for the INS, said the database will bring technology to a system which was paper-driven for too long.

“It (SEVIS) takes a paper-driven antiquated system and replaces it with state-of-the-art computer technology,” Bentley said. “The new program will provide us with instant updates and speed up the process through which information is collected.”

Philip Huelsbeck, UW-Eau Claire’s international student adviser, said the previous system was “extraordinarily complex and inefficient.” He said the INS was understaffed and underfunded for many years, causing an inability to effectively update the information on visa holders.

Bentley agreed that the current system was inefficient, but said he is optimistic that SEVIS would solve the problem.

“The old system worked, but this system is going to be faster and will solve many of the inefficiencies that have dogged the process in the past,” Bentley said. “It’s not so much about tracking foreign students as being able to instantly maintain their status. Changed names, changed addresses, we can instantly update those files. It’s going to allow for the process to be much faster.”

Huelsbeck said he is cautious about expecting too much from the new program.

“Less paper-based is better, but we all know computers crash,” Huelsbeck said. “What happens if all these systems don’t work together the way they’re supposed to?”

According to the INS Web site, the agency is responsible for tracking nearly 1 million foreign students at any given time and that one of the goals of the SEVP will be to make that process more efficient. Other goals, it says, include improved data collection and better monitoring of schools and exchange programs.

Bentley said the system was the descendant of an earlier program that was in early trials for several years.

The program started in 1995 with a different system, Bentley said. That was a pilot program so well-liked by administrators that many of the schools using it chose to continue using it.

Karl Markgraf, director of international education, said he knew the changes were coming.

“I heard the first iterations in 1993,” Markgraf said. “They were hurried along after 9/11.”

Huelsbeck agreed that the terrorist attacks last year speeded the process significantly.

“Things were changed immeasurably,” Huelsbeck said. “After the attacks . people were talking about scrapping the INS altogether.”

“This university will have no problem meeting the deadline,” Markgraf said. “Other universities with a large foreign populations – Madison and Michigan – will have a very hard time.”

“Anyone with a population of 400 to 500 students or more is going to have some problems,” Huelsbeck said. “It requires a lot of intensive manned labor input.”

Bentley said that while the system is being created, foreign students should not be inconvenienced by major changes.

“For the most part the changes are going to be transparent,” Bentley said. “The things that students should anticipate seeing is faster responses.

“It’s a win-win for everyone: the schools, the government and the students.”