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After months of working to comply with new foreign-student registration systems established in the wake of Sept. 11, Harvard International Office (HIO) Director Sharon Ladd says her office is poised to meet a crucial deadline at the beginning of August.
Working “nights and weekends” since early May, the HIO has been transferring thousands of pieces of information into Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), a national computerized database of foreign students that officials at educational institutions across the nation have criticized for technical flaws and ambiguous demands.
Harvard will have records for all 3,500 of its international students, all 2,000 of its international scholars and all of their dependents entered into the system by the end of the month, Ladd says.
Meanwhile, the looming SEVIS deadline has combined with a usual flurry of summer activity to turn the HIO’s busiest season into a hectic race toward the federal finish line.
“It’s been a real push, but we’ve done it,” Ladd says. “We have a few more people who need to get in the database, and we’ve just run our final lists.”
The SEVIS database contains information about international students and scholars’ visa statuses, residences and programs of study at the University. As the first national computerized database of the United States’ foreign scholars, it enables—and requires—colleges, universities and trade schools throughout the country to update foreign students’ records electronically, and replaces the old paper-based system.
The database, which Congress fast-tracked after learning that three of the Sept. 11 hijackers had entered the country on student visas, was intended to provide the former Immigration and Naturalization Service with an up-to-date record of every foreign student’s status.
But in the short term, SEVIS brought a host of new travails and acute setbacks to the international offices of colleges nationwide.
From the first trial version of SEVIS last summer, international administrators at several institutions complained that the database was riddled with technical flaws and logistical weaknesses that made it impossible to use.
“Schools report that SEVIS frequently loses data that has been properly entered into the system,” President of the American Council on Education David Ward explained at a congressional hearing on SEVIS in April—one of several national forums convened to discuss concerns about the system’s problems.
“Many schools report that their immigration forms have printed out on the computers of other schools,” he said.
Reports of lost or misdirected data and an ineffective data-entry system became more dire when many institutions—Harvard not among them—complained publicly that the INS offered insufficient support for administrators learning to use the new system.
But according to Ladd, government agencies have been working continuously to remedy these flaws and the system is now functioning.
“I think that they have, to a great degree, addressed many of the glitches in the system,” she says. “There are ongoing investigations between government people and people in our profession.”
The HIO has been satisfied with recent governmental support, she adds.
“They’re a bit overwhelmed, and it can take time to get through to the SEVIS help desk, but there they’re trying very hard,” she says.
Still, the HIO’s work this summer involves nearly as much troubleshooting as data entry.
“Figuring out how to use the system” consumes after-hours time, Ladd says.
Harvard received approval to use SEVIS on Jan. 30, but as a result of its academic calendar the University does not have to enter all of its international students into the database until Aug. 1, the final deadline for SEVIS entry.
But according to Ladd, the University saw the database operate successfully for the first time as a group of foreign scholars entered the country without major problems under the SEVIS system.
“The Mason Scholars at the Kennedy School were reported to SEVIS in July,” she says. “The system is working.”
Far From Fancy Free
But though Ladd says that the HIO will be ready to meet the SEVIS deadline, it will not meet August carefree.
A combination of the office’s usual summer travails and new national-security legislation looming on the horizon leaves the HIO with a formidable amount of work.
Beginning Aug. 1, consular offices will be required to hold face-to-face interviews with all visa applicants, student or otherwise—an added step that threatens to bog down an already backlogged process, Ladd says.
And late this past spring, Tom Ridge ’67, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said that the U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indication Technology System (U.S. VISIT) will be effective by the end of the year, replacing NSEERS, an older, controversial system for registering men from certain countries.
NSEERS applies to men from countries such as Sudan and Iraq, considered state sponsors of terrorism, as well as to other immigrants who the government believes require extra scrutiny.
U.S. VISIT will combine information gleaned from SEVIS with fingerprints, eye scans, and other sources of biometric data, Ridge said.
Ladd said she did not yet know what fresh responsibilities the new program would bring to her office.
Summer has always been the HIO’s most hectic season, Ladd says, as preparations for the fall term combine with a host of setbacks in students’ summer plans.
Canadian citizen Wilson R.S. Prichard ’03 had expected to begin work at a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., earlier this month on a special one-year Optional Practical Training (OPT) program.
But due to what he describes as a series of errors by the government agencies processing his application for a work visa, Prichard is still working from his laptop in Toronto.
“I went to apply for my OPT visa at the beginning of May, and was told that it would take two to three months to process because they have introduced a new tracking system for non-U.S. citizens in the U.S. called SEVIS,” Prichard wrote in an e-mail.
And Prichard has since only encountered more pitfalls.
“I never received confirmation of my application, which would have included a tracking number to check the status of my application,” he says.
Without the confirmation or tracking number, his inquiries have bounced among a number of agencies. Two months after submitting his forms, Prichard still doesn’t know whether his visa application was processed.
Though Prichard, as a recent graduate, no longer works with the HIO, Ladd says predicaments like his are par for the summer course of many students—and for her office.
But she discounts the possibility that such problems are direct corollaries of the SEVIS program. Ladd and her colleagues have not seen more of these cases this summer than in past years, she says.
“I’d really be surprised if this has to do with SEVIS. We have problems every year,” she says.
The new database, with its history of failures, has become the national scapegoat for weaknesses in visa procedures that offices like the HIO have faced for years, she adds.
Students coming to the U.S. from countries with high non-return rates—such as China and India—are often barred from entry until they can prove their intent to return to their countries of origin, Ladd says. This often means tenacious negotiation from the HIO.
“The students have to show strong ties to their countries,” Ladd explains. In some cases, she and her colleagues have to compile references and examples of past students who have returned successfully after a U.S. education.
But as new systems to be learned and mastered loom on the horizon, the HIO staff is doing what it can not to let fatigue show.
“In the midst of all of this,” Ladd says, “we want to create as welcoming an environment as we can for people.”
—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at email@example.com.
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