As part of the USA Patriot Act, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is working on instituting a system to keep track of all foreign students studying on student visas in the United States.
The system, Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, was originally supposed to be operational by Jan. 30, but the current rumor is they can’t have it working in time. The system is operating on a test basis in some schools on the East Coast, but will probably not be operation nationally until early 2003.
Use of SEVIS is required for all universities, community colleges, vocational technical schools or beauty schools – any educational facility that enrolls foreign students. Schools that already enroll foreign students, like CSU, will be able to start using the system right away. After the system goes national, institutions that want to begin admitting international students will have to go through an application process.
“I think the government has a right to know who is here on temporary visas,” said Mark Hallett, the director of international student and scholar services. “It will be very interesting to see how the government uses the information and how it adds to overall security.”
Hallett said that although the Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine has said the system may be delayed, CSU is operating under the assumption that they need to be fully compliant by the Jan. 30 deadline to avoid delays for international students.
The main concern regarding the system from the students, Hallett said, is that they will make some mistake or overlook some detail and lose their visas.
Overall, the system is sound. Since universities already collect most of the information, it simply has to be shared with the INS, and this system facilitates that.
It is reasonable to track foreign students, because, frankly, the people who are involved in suicide bombings do fit a certain profile. Therefore it is reasonable for the government to be able to notice when someone who fits that profile has an interest in something that might send up a red flag, like flying airplanes.
What are most concerning are the gray areas of this law. There are a lot of potential catches that could make the law burdensome and invasive. For example, if a student disappears from a university, the INS would send inspectors to locate him. However, it is not yet specified whether they would be treated as criminals when found.
Certainly, the purpose of the system is to enable someone who goes missing not to get lost in the system so if someone disappears, it is important to locate them as quickly as possible. However, unless there is other evidence, to search on the assumptions that they are already criminals is burdensome to both the university and the INS and is passing judgment without justification.
If someone disappeared from the SEVIS system to travel for a year, he could be hunted as a criminal? At the very least, this sort of detail should be worked out before the system is created, not sometime after it goes into effect.
Other parts of the law are also unclear, including what kind of major change would send up a red flag, and how would “investigations” be handled.
Another concern is that this is not a catchall fix to terrorists in the United States. Sure, one of the 19 hijackers held a student visa, but the rest were here illegally or on other kinds of visas.
There are 500,000 international students in the United States. There are 34 million legal visits ever year and many more illegal visitors, according to the INS Web site. To truly tighten our nation’s security, controlling student access is a start, but there’s a lot more work to be done.