San Diego Union-Tribune

Jan 26, 2002

Colleges critical of plan to track foreign students
  Educators, INS at odds over visa database, fee collection

By Joe Cantlupe
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- The federal government plans to require universities and colleges by this fall to participate in a national database designed to keep track of the roughly half-million foreigners in the country with student visas.

The speeded-up effort, sought by Congress, is supposed to plug a hole in the country's security system following the Sept. 11 attacks. But educators are challenging the timetable and criticizing the government's proposals to collect fees from students to pay for the visa-tracking system.

Officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service said they are frustrated by the complaints, brought by representatives of higher education who have lobbied vigorously to sidetrack previous student-tracking efforts. Colleges and universities covet foreign students, not only for the diversity but for the estimated $11.4 billion
they bring in annually through hefty tuitions.

As the INS moves to draft proposals to collect fees and plan for new database systems, educators are growing uneasy.

"The level of confidence in the INS decision-making is not high," said Scott Sudduth, assistant vice president for government relations at the University of California Washington Center.

One of higher education's top lobbying organizations -- the American Council on Education -- sent a letter this week to INS Commissioner James Ziglar, saying colleges and universities are "deeply worried" about the agency's ability to install a smooth-running computerized tracking program by the end of the year.

In the letter, David Ward, the council's president, insisted higher education would cooperate. But he criticized what he termed a lack of planning needed to monitor about 500,000 foreign students who've obtained visas to study at U.S. schools. The council represents 1,800 schools, including California universities and colleges.

"Efforts to launch such systems without adequate preparation are doomed to failure," wrote Ward, whose group was joined by other higher-education organizations.

To speed the process, INS officials scrapped initial plans to continue a five-year pilot program that targeted specific regions and instead plan to make the database available nationwide this year.

Lobbying by higher education was responsible for "significant delays in the program's implementation" over the past few years, INS spokesman Russ Bergeron said.

"The collection of the fees has been repeatedly delayed by the initiative of the schools," Bergeron said. "It was the INS that recognized that the current system is inefficient, with all the paper that needed to be moved to track students. It's kind of ironic that these educational institutions are criticizing the INS for wanting to do something that corrects the inefficiencies."

Under the INS plan, colleges would be able to voluntarily enroll in the database tracking system in June. Then all colleges would be required to participate in the Student Exchange and Visitor Information system -- commonly known as SEVIS -- by fall.

California leads the nation with 74,281 foreign students enrolled during the 2000-2001 school year, according to the Association of International Educators.

Student visa reforms are only part of a broad effort to overhaul national security. But the complex political and practical uncertainties underlying the effort to improve tracking of foreign students underscore the obstacles to be faced on many security fronts.

INS officials said educators' opposition appeared to wane after the Sept. 11 attacks. At the time, educators announced they supported plans to overhaul the existing foreign student monitoring system.

The terrorist attacks reflected long-standing concerns among many observers that the current system for tracking students is virtually nonexistent. Several of the Sept. 11 hijackers had been in the country on expired or current student visas.

Shortly after the attacks, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., threatened to impose a moratorium on admitting foreign students. But Feinstein backed off after meeting with educators. Instead, the senator and a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed a wide-ranging security measure that expands the INS ability to electronically track students. The Senate is expected to take up the measure soon. The House passed a similar bill endorsed by the educators.

For years, colleges and universities -- to varying degrees of efficiency -- compiled documents about the comings and goings of foreign students. But the INS lacked the ability to tap into the system, and the "periodic review" required by law stretched into months at a time before immigration authorities sought information on specific students. Even then, the paper trail did not reflect the full scope of a student's stay in the United
States, such as where he or she arrived in this country, authorities said.

Under the anti-terrorism law signed by President Bush last year, the United States has taken steps to broaden the scope of the documentation needed to track students.

In late December, Congress also tacked on $36.8 million to Department of Defense appropriations to pay for development of an electronic student tracking system, which lawmakers wanted installed by the end of this year.

The proposed $95 fee for each foreign student would be earmarked for continued operations of the program, according to federal authorities. But educators said in recent interviews their concerns are mounting as INS officials are preparing to release final regulations on the fees. Educators said the government has not figured out a proper method to collect the
fees, which could result in months of delays in processing forms.

"My colleagues and I are anxious to work with you and the State Department to create a system that does not make it impossible for large numbers of international students to study at American colleges," the American Council on Education's Ward said.

Ward and other educators also have proposed the INS establish a training system to help coordinate various college and federal databases.

Howard Gantman, a spokesman for Feinstein, said the educators have "very legitimate concerns." He added, "Unfortunately in the past, all too often Congress has directed the INS to take certain steps and it hasn't."