In the wake of reports that one or more of the terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks entered the United States on student visas, the academic community has reversed its staunch opposition to electronic tracking of foreign students at U.S. colleges. Universities are now emphasizing that their objections apply only to the fee structure associated with the new system, not the system as a whole.
Nevertheless, because of the importance of attracting international students to study in the United States and because of a controversial moratorium on student visas briefly proposed by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), concerns about the issue remain.
Currently, colleges and universities are required to keep track of information such as program end date, field of study, credits completed per semester, and student employment. Schools must provide this information to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) upon request, but the system is paper-based, meaning that requiring frequent reports of such information would generate a huge quantity of paperwork.
Feinstein has strongly criticized the current system. "Today, there is little scrutiny given to those who claim to be foreign students seeking to study in the United States," she said in a September 27 press release. "In fact, the foreign student visa program is one of the most unregulated and exploited visa categories."
Education groups dispute this claim, arguing that the existing tracking requirements, scant as they may be, still place foreign students among the most scrutinized groups of temporary visa holders. They point out that, according to INS statistics, only 1.8 percent, or 567,000, of the 31 million nonimmigrant visas issued in fiscal 1999 were issued to students.
The electronic tracking system under development by the INS is called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Mandated by the 1996 immigration law, the system's implementation has lagged behind schedule because of a lack of funds. Congress intended the system to be supported by fees collected from visiting students, but a fee structure has yet to be worked out.
INS first proposed a fee structure in 1999 that would have required colleges and universities to collect a $95 fee from each foreign student. But university officials objected to this proposal on the grounds that it imposed an undue burden. They particularly criticized INS for proposing to collect fees before the tracking system was operational in order to cover the system's development costs. The INS then proposed a …