After a two-week delay, a federal computer system designed to track international students in the United States went online Feb. 15, despite lingering concerns.

Reaction among foreign students has been mixed, and some critics have complained the program is too intrusive. Even the program’s supporters say the electronic tracking system has loopholes that could allow foreign students to escape detection.

The internet-based system—called the Student Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS—was announced last May by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The system links U.S. consulates with every immigration port of entry and all 74,000 educational institutions eligible to host foreign students.

SEVIS is meant to be a faster-moving version of long-standing procedures that require colleges to monitor the academic status and addresses of foreign students. Elementary and secondary schools do not participate in the program.

Instead of maintaining the files on campus, SEVIS requires colleges to forward this information to a national computer database. The program actually was authorized in 1996, but implementation gained momentum in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Some of the terrorists entered the country on student visas.

Chris Bentley, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), said 3,907 colleges and universities were ready to participate when SEVIS went live, and 1,941 more have applications pending. Originally scheduled to be operational on Jan. 30, INS delayed the rollout to resolve last-minute problems with the system and to allow the participation of more schools.

Colleges lacking INS approval to participate in the system will be prohibited from enrolling new foreign students.

Schools must notify the INS if an international student fails to enroll or is arrested. Students are responsible for reporting status changes—such as a new address—to their respective schools. The INS may share its data with the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the Central Intelligence Agency.

“If it works seamlessly, the foreign students shouldn’t know it even exists, unless a fee is imposed to finance SEVIS,” said Victor Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers. “It’s information they’ve already supplied to international offices anyway.”

Bentley said foreign students will not be penalized for system glitches or reporting delays from colleges.

“As for individuals who do something to jeopardize their immigration status, yes, they could be held accountable for that,” he said. Penalties include deportation.

Jun Yoshizaki, a doctoral student and president of the Japanese Scholar and Student Association at North Carolina State University, said foreign students have accepted SEVIS as a condition for attending college in the United States.

But Rebecca Thornton of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights said SEVIS is “just another instance of the government collecting massive information, trying to get leads for terrorism suspects by really casting a broader net than is effective.”

Although the system tightens the restrictions on who gets student visas, some educators say it has loopholes that could allow foreign students to escape detection.

If they wanted to, foreign students could enroll in classes at the beginning of the semester, drop out, and—most of the time—they would go unnoticed until the end of a semester, some SEVIS proponents say.

Participating institutions have systems in place to monitor excessive absences by students; however, the integrity of the program depends on the faculty’s diligence in reporting absences.

Keeping track of student address changes also is a challenge. Under SEVIS guidelines, a foreign student is expected to contact the school or INS when he or she moves. But if a student moves without notifying the school or immigration authorities, the system has no way of telling.

The next deadline for schools is Aug. 1, when they will have to re-enter detailed information for existing foreign students enrolled before Sept. 11, 2001.

See these related links:

Immigration and Naturalization Service
http://www.ins.gov

Department of Homeland Security
http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic

National Association of Foreign Student Advisers
http://www.nafsa.org

Lawyers Committee for Human Rights
http://www.lchr.org