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INS to implement foreign student tracking system in January

An automated system for tracking foreign students in the United States will be in place by its Jan. 30 deadline, despite requests by educational institutions for more time, the Immigration and Naturalization Service said Wednesday.

Public and private schools that enroll foreign students must enter information about new nonimmigrant students who plan to study at their institutions into the INS' Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) by Jan. 30. Schools cannot enroll new foreign students for study in the United States until they comply with SEVIS rules, INS spokesman Chris Bentley said Wednesday.

Schools have until Aug. 1, 2003 to enter information about current nonimmigrant foreign students attending their institutions, according to the final rule on SEVIS published in the Federal Register Wednesday.

SEVIS is designed to replace the paper-based system the agency now uses to track foreign students in the United States, eliminating delays in notification by informing all parties simultaneously once an INS decision on a visa application is completed. Although the State Department is responsible for issuing student visas to foreign students who want to study in the United States, the INS must monitor each student's stay in the country and determine which schools are eligible to accept foreign students.

Under the system, when a foreign student applies to enroll at a school, the institution enters information about the student into the electronic system. Designated INS officials, school officials, certain State Department employees and law enforcement authorities will have access to SEVIS to monitor foreign students' attendance records and other activities while they are enrolled.

In public comments about SEVIS, school officials and education associations asked the INS to extend the initial compliance date, saying they didn't have enough time, money or staff to assess system changes or purchase software necessary to implement SEVIS. Schools also said they would not be able to assess all the guidance for SEVIS before Jan. 30, since the State Department has yet to publish its corresponding guidelines on SEVIS.

But the INS defended its decision to stand by the January deadline. "It was not a date chosen at random, but was a date chosen as the most reasonable balance between national security concerns and the education community's ability to comply," the final rule in the Federal Register said. "The sooner that all schools and students are in the SEVIS database, the sooner the [INS] will have the ability to more fully monitor them."

The INS emphasized that schools need only to enter data on new foreign students by Jan. 30 and can use regular Internet access to link to SEVIS. More sophisticated software for SEVIS was introduced recently, but many schools have not yet had an opportunity to test it.

The INS also said it has been working closely with the State Department on SEVIS guidelines, so schools need not worry about significant discrepancies between the agencies' guidance. "The fact that two separate rules are being promulgated setting out SEVIS requirements is a matter of the federal rulemaking process, and does not indicate that the two agencies are not working together," the rule said.

At a congressional hearing in September, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine expressed doubt about the INS' ability to get SEVIS in place by Jan. 30.

"Unless the INS devotes sufficient resources and effort to implement and use SEVIS effectively, many of its current problems in tracking and monitoring foreign students who come to the United States to attend school would continue to exist," Fine said before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims.