Gov’t program forces universities to keep tabs on exchange students

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – David Currey wishes his University of Missouri international student office could focus on building bridges between foreign students and Missourians.

But 95 percent of the staff’s time goes to helping federal authorities keep track of foreign students – and helping the students follow complicated student visa rules.

That’s the post-Sept. 11 reality for the University of Missouri and schools across the country thanks to the government’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, implemented five years ago this spring to address glaring holes in foreign-student monitoring revealed by terrorist attacks.

Experts say the computer-based system has improved national security by giving the U.S. Department of Homeland Security faster, more reliable information on the whereabouts of roughly 1 million international students, visitors and their dependents.

But it also vastly increases the burden of accountability on colleges and international students alike. Colleges must report the comings and goings of every international student and visiting foreign professor. For Currey’s staff, that means updating records for almost 2,000 people.

And now, the federal government wants to place even more responsibility on colleges and international students.

Homeland Security announced this month that it wants to double the amount of money foreign students must pay to help keep SEVIS running, and it wants colleges to track certain international students even longer than they used to.

“We’re sort of sad to see so much of our time go strictly to regulatory compliance, but that seems to be the paradigm we’ve got to live with,” Currey said.

Kris Kobach, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor who follows immigration-related security matters, said the time spent on the program has been worth it.

“The SEVIS system at least maintains some record-keeping on where they have been and when they were there,” Kobach said. “It does give ICE [immigration enforcement] a little bit of an advantage in tracking. It’s not a guarantee, but it may give them some clues.”

SEVIS gives immigration authorities thousands of extra sets of eyes and ears – college officials – who let them know whether students from across the world are abiding by their visas.

Here’s how the system works:

Colleges report through SEVIS when they offer admission to an international student.

A student’s entrance into the country is recorded in SEVIS.

Colleges report when the student appears on campus and continue to report the student’s academic progress.