APS News

February 2002 (Volume 11, Number 2)

Government Speeds Up System to Monitor Foreign Students

By Richard M. Todaro

As a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the federal government has put on a fast-track a comprehensive new electronic system to monitor all foreign nationals who come to the US on student and exchange visitor visas to study or do research. The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act, signed into law in October 2001, requires that such a system be in place nationwide by January 2003.

Critics have opposed such monitoring of foreign students in the US as both unworkable and unfair in that it targets international students, a group they say is already much more closely monitored than the far larger numbers of foreign tourists who come to the US each year. But the main organization opposing such a system has dropped its public opposition in the wake of September 11.

Academic officials ranging from those overseeing international exchange programs to those involved in federal lobbying efforts have welcomed such a system provided it is created in close consultation with the academic community, and that it targets "questionable individuals" before they enter the US. They said that it is essential that the new system does not get the government involved in micro-managing specific courses studied by foreign students.

The new system is known as the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) and its central component is a real-time database called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). It is designed to be an information collection and tracking system for individuals (and their dependents) in the US on visa categories F (student), J (exchange visitor, such as visiting scientist), or M (vocational or other non-academic student, such as cooking, theatre, or flight training school attendee).

Using SEVIS software, any institution can transmit to the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) and the State Department an array of electronic information on any international student or exchange visitor in the US on an F, J, or M visa. The system will employ at least two interfacing options. The first option is a "real-time interactive" method that allows users to access the SEVIS website and enter information directly. The second option is the "batch mode" in which large numbers of student records can be transferred to SEVIS in XML format.

SEVIS is based on an earlier pilot program called the Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students (CIPRIS), implemented in June 1997 and officially concluded in October 1999. It electronically collected an assortment of information on international students and exchange visitors attending the participating schools, including current US address, visa classification and issue date, current academic or program status, and any academic disciplinary actions due to criminal convictions.

Among the 21 institutions across the Southeastern US that participated in CIPRIS were the University of Alabama (Birmingham and Tuscaloosa), Auburn University, Duke University, and Methodist College. Both the INS and officials at the participating schools dubbed it a success.

Those who participated found the pilot system to be so useful that the INS agreed to continue the system as an operational prototype, which is currently still working and will be transitioned to SEVIS in early 2002.

"Even before the tragic attacks, INS was moving forward with SEVIS and was already approaching final system testing stages," said Chase Garwood, the SEVP program coordinator. "What has occurred post-September 11 is a rapid acceleration of the INS deadline for actual deployment and availability of SEVIS to all institutions nationwide."

Echoing those sentiments was Jim Ellis, director of the Office of International Education at Auburn University, who said that while there is always the risk of misuse of the data, he has seen no indication of that at Auburn. Rather, it has made his work easier.

"As with anything, there is always the potential for uses which may or may not have been intended. Everyone should always raise questions about the security and the use of data," he said. "We have not seen any indications that the data that have been transmitted for the past number of years have been misused in any way. In fact, it has facilitated our ability to work with the students and departments [on campus]."

Not everyone is happy with such an electronic monitoring system. Opposition has come both on technical grounds and also on the philosophical grounds that cracking down on academic exchange would hurt the US intellectually and unfairly penalize a tiny minority of foreign visitors without providing any additional homeland security.

Leading the opposition has been the Association of International Educators, known by its old acronym NAFSA, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group promoting international educational exchange among 80 nations.

"We have recognized the need for more efficient and effective reporting mechanisms, but have argued that there are better and worse ways to achieve them," according to a September 20 statement in which the group formally dropped its opposition to a foreign tracking system on the grounds of national unity following the terrorist attacks

NAFSA had opposed the monitoring system on the grounds that the new system would unfairly focus on foreign students and visitors, a group already well monitored compared to the vastly larger numbers of foreigners who visit the US each year on tourist and business visas. The organization argued that rather than enhancing homeland security, the monitoring would simply discourage the roughly half-million foreign students who come to the US each year while doing nothing to monitor the other 30 million plus foreign visitors who come to the United States annually - the majority of whom come without any visa.

"As the debate on foreign students proceeds, we must recognize that our country gains much from being their destination of choice. It also remains true that 99.99% of the foreign students enrolled in our institutions wish us no ill, cause us no problems, and seek nothing more than the best education in the world," NAFSA Executive Director and CEO Marlene M. Johnson said. "If cracking down on foreign students and scholars could really protect us against terrorism, it might be necessary to forego the benefits that they bring. But that's not the case."

The NAFSA position has met with criticism from some of its own members, including the officials at the 21 institutions who participated in the earlier pilot program, such as Auburn's Ellis.

Officials from all 21 schools signed a letter in September 2001 that went out to NAFSA members and was publicly posted on an Auburn University web site. While supporting efforts to change responsibility for fee collection, they also affirmed their strong support for the electronic monitoring program. "For the record, we continue our strong support for the removal of schools as collection agents, and for the removal of artificial deadlines in the law. Also for the record, we continue our strong support for our reporting electronically," the letter read.

Responding to NAFSA philosophical objections to such monitoring, they wrote, "No one has yet shown us how CIPRIS would have a negative effect on international exchange unless we, as international exchange professionals, make it do so. How is electronically reporting of this data evil, while posting F and J handouts and our annual statistics on our web sites considered a blessing and a service? Why is reporting CIPRIS data more malevolent than electronic transfers of transcripts, or registering for classes on line?"

Katherine Bellows, assistant dean and director of International Student and Scholar Services in the Office of International Programs at Georgetown University, thinks SEVIS is a good idea because it would provide accurate numbers on how many foreign students there are in the country. But she acknowledged that there is the incorrect perception that foreign students are the source of the terrorism threat.

She pointed to the fact that of the 19 hijackers in the September 11 attacks, only one was on a student visa to study English, while many of the others were on tourist visas. "These weren't people coming into four year colleges [but] there is still the perception, that that is where the danger is," Bellows said.

For Bellows, the success or failure of the new electronic monitoring system will be how is it designed: does it keep out "questionable" individuals ahead of time, or does it get the federal government involved trying to limit the flow of information? That is where intelligence gathering comes into play," she said. "There is a very small number of people who we are worried about having access to sensitive information. Do we focus on types of information or do we focus on types of individuals we are worried about?"

Focusing on the former, Bellows said, could create a situation where even the most innocent-seeming information becomes dangerous, with the government then attempting to "micro-manage" courses taken by foreign students. "You could go into a home economics course and take something really, really benign and do a little molecular reconfiguration and create something that was a bio-hazard. So even in the most benign courses you have danger."

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette

February 2002 (Volume 11, Number 2)

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Articles in this Issue
Electronic Reminders Help Boost Membership, Voting Rates
Biophysics Workshop Planned for Fall 2002
Inside the Beltway
Members in the Media
Viewpoint, by Pervez Hoodbhoy
Hurricane Physics, Biofluid Mechanics Highlight 2001 DFD Meeting
This Month in Physics History
Viewpoint, by Alan Chodos
Government Speeds Up System to Monitor Foreign Students
The Back Page
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
Focus on Committees
Undergraduate Changes Rescue Graduate Physics Program at U of Wyoming
Physics & Technology Forefronts
Physicist Jumps Into Texas Senate Race