Since 9/11, many U.S. educators have worried about the effects
of increasing immigration scrutiny on international exchange. One
of the largest of these will be felt at Emory beginning this month,
when federal regulations require that institutions enrolling foreign
students fully comply with SEVIS (the Student and Exchange Visitor
Information System), a web-based database designed by the Immigration
and Naturalization Service (INS) to monitor international students,
exchange visitors and their dependents.
Under the new regulations, which took effect Feb. 15, the INS will
notify host institutions when an international student or exchange
visitor arrives at a port of entry. From that moment, until the
visitor exits the country, the school must report regularly via
SEVIS to both the INS and the State Department on matters such as
date of arrival on campus, field of study and changes in enrollment
or academic level.
Contrary to what many believe, though, the creation of SEVIS was
not a direct response to Sept. 11 but to the first World Trade Center
attack in 1993. In fact, schools have been required to collect data
on international students since the early 1980s, though reporting
of this data to the government was done inefficiently, by paper
and sporadically (only upon request from the INS).
After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, passage of the 1996 Illegal
Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act mandated the
creation of an electronic tracking system. Funding, however, was
not provided, and development of SEVIS plodded along until reports
emerged that one of the Sept. 11 hijackers had entered the United
States on a student visa. The ensuing USA Patriot Act of 2001 supplied
the funds necessary to accelerate SEVIS’ implementation.
At Emory, International Student and Scholar Programs (ISSP) Director
Lelia Crawford and her staff have been busy for the past year preparing
to manage the new system. Her office underwent an INS site visit
last month and already has begun SEVIS reporting.
“I don’t think international educators were ever really
opposed to SEVIS as has been reported in the media,” Crawford
said. “I think many of our international students see it as
an invasion of their privacy, but we’ve actually been recording
this information all along.
“Most of the concern on the part of educators,” she
continued, “is the time it’s going to take to report
these events on a frequent basis, especially for large institutions
like Emory, which has more than 800 international students and more
than 300 scholars with J-1 status. We also had to purchase very
expensive equipment in order to send the information efficiently.”
Other concerns about SEVIS point to the complex and confusing new
regulations, which may criminalize violations that result from simple
errors. According to a policy statement from NAFSA: the Association
of International Educators, “The new system will impose draconian
penalties even for inadvertent and minor violations that carry no
national security implications, an eventuality that will threaten
the ability of legitimate students to continue their studies and
of schools to enroll them.”
Crawford agrees with this assessment and worries that the combination
of unfamiliar technology and high student numbers will ensure minor
glitches that carry larger consequences.
“For example,” she said, “an international student
withdraws from a class on Friday, dropping him or her below full-time
status, but intends to enroll in another class on the following
Monday or Tuesday. But we do the INS reporting over the weekend.
We’ve just reported that student as being in violation of
his/her immigration status because of not carrying a full course
load. That student has just become a criminal and is subject to
“In other words, we have to be very, very careful,”
For this reason, ISSP will hold information sessions over the next
month for international students, scholars and administrators who
deal regularly with Emory’s international community.
“We need the whole University to be cognizant of SEVIS,”