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Surveillance System for Foreign Students in US Takes Effect - 2003-01-08

The deadline for U.S. universities to enroll in a nationwide computer surveillance system that would allow the Immigration and Naturalization Service to keep track of international students studying at their institutions is the end of this month. One university says after working through the summer to input all of the necessary data into a centralized computer program, it is ready to comply.

American University, in Washington, hosts more than 1,400 foreign students from more than 130 countries. The school's international student services director, Fanta Aw, says the fact that the university is collecting detailed data on its foreign students is actually nothing new.

"What has really changed is that universities no longer are expected to wait for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to request information," she said. "But instead now, will be required to report this information each semester."

Ms. Aw says American University has always had different pieces of information about its foreign students on paper and scattered among different university entities. She says in order to comply with the new Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS, the school gathered all that information into one centralized place.

Ms. Aw said the university provides SEVIS with one important piece of information. "The critical information that INS needs, 'Is the student enrolled, yes or no?' That is not based on an honor code," she said. "In order for us to be able to say that a student is enrolled, they must have registered and it must have gone through our registrar system."

But she acknowledged that the school exercises a level of trust that its international students are there to study. "Information that we can check visually, we will check visually," she said. "Information that we have no way of verifying, and that probably INS has no way of verifying or any other entity, we make sure that the students understand what the repercussions are if that information is not accurate. And students very much understand that. These are adults that very clearly understand the repercussions of not being in legal status, and they take that very seriously."

Foreign students studying at American University say they were initially apprehensive. Monsicha Poolsawat, from Thailand, is a graduate student studying psychology. "Personally, I think that when we come as international students, we already know that there are some regulations that we have to keep," she said. "So, sometimes the word 'tracking' sounds very scary, you know, that they are going to track you. But actually it's just, they just prepare the information [and make it] accessible for the INS."

Another student, Mario Landivar from Bolivia, has been at the school for nearly four years, for undergraduate studies in communications. He says he actually prefers the new, computerized way of registering, saying it is more convenient than the old method.

"Because if you had to make any change to your address form, like if you made any address change, you had to go into the office and you had to report, basically, your address, immediately," he said. "Now, with the system, you can basically log-in to the [computer] portal that we have at American [University] and report your address right there."

Jun Yu, a graduate business student from China, says he is not personally worried because he has nothing to hide. But he says there are still a few concerns.

"I think that we [are] concerned as a student, what we concerned [with] this new system, whether it is utilized properly and also students concerned about their individual privacy, a little bit," he said. "And also students, they aware of the inequality between the international students and the American students. So, only international students are tracked through this system."

SEVIS was fully operational by January 1, but the firm start date is the January 30 deadline. INS officer Christopher Bentley says as of January 6, the agency had approved applications from more than 1,700 institutions, including universities, public and private high schools, and vocational schools. He said applications from nearly 3,200 others have been submitted.

Mr. Bentley said the penalties for non-compliance are straightforward, U.S. institutions that do not register with SEVIS will not be granted visas for foreign students.