Rules Hinder Foreign Students

Data loss, information misplacement and other technical flaws in a computerized international-student database have made the United States inhospitable to foreign students, experts testified at a congressional hearing yesterday afternoon.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) implemented the Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) earlier this year in response to national security concerns following the attacks of Sept. 11. Three of the hijackers who carried out the attacks were in the country on expired student visas.

The database’s history of inefficiency threatens to deprive the nation of the valuable intellectual resources that many international students bring, President of the American Council on Education (ACE) David Ward told the House Immigration Subcommittee.

“We fear that some of the new policies and procedures may well make the nation a less desirable and welcoming place for international students and scholars and this will force some students to choose to go elsewhere,” Ward said. “The loss to our economy and our scientific enterprise will be incalculable and profound.”

Johnny N. Williams, interim director for immigration interior enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security, maintained that while SEVIS has had problems over the course of the past year, it provides a vital service to the nation in a time of security concerns.

“SEVIS enhances our ability to detect and deter those who may come to America for nefarious purposes, while extending a hand in friendship to those seeking the exceptional education and training opportunities this great country has to offer,” he said during the hearing.


But the technology behind SEVIS has been riddled with problem since its establishment. The system does not allow schools to edit student information once it is submitted, requiring them to resubmit entire records to update a single datum. As a result, obsolete records have bogged down the system, users say.

“Schools report that SEVIS frequently loses data that has been properly entered into the system. Many schools report that their immigration forms have printed out on the computers of other schools,” Ward said at the hearing.

The subcommittee spent the afternoon discussing testimony without reaching major conclusions.

But the hearing—one in a series about SEVIS held on the Hill over the course of the past year—marked a peak in a recent flurry of congressional activity questioning the efficacy of national security legislation aimed at the nation’s international student community.

As many colleges and universities look ahead to the fall, concerns about lowered international enrollment figures have impelled local representatives to call for reexamination of national security policies affecting foreign students, congressional officials said.

But Harvard’s Senior Director of Federal and State Relations Kevin Casey said that the University does not agree with administrators at other universities who want to see the system eliminated.

“We’re not against the process—we’re worried about the number of resources that the university has had to put into it,” he said. “If you have glitches in the system, you can’t fix them if you shut the system down.”

Harvard International Office Director Sharon Ladd said that while Harvard is fully compliant with SEVIS’ demands, she was glad to see that yesterday’s hearing addressed weaknesses within the system that have come to light in recent months.

“I was happy to see that this was happening,” she said. “We’re certainly hoping that things are going more smoothly in the summer and fall.”

Casey said that Harvard wants to ensure that no aspect of the SEVIS registration process comes as a surprise to students or administrators.