February 17, 2003

SEVIS goes into effect for internationals

Lailee Mendelson is communications specialist for the Office of International Affairs.

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 deportation.

“In other words, we have to be very, very careful,” Crawford said.

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,” Crawford said.







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