System tracks exchange students

Technology changes everything.

It's changing the lives of the 770,000 foreign exchange students in the United States thanks to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS.

SEVIS, implemented about a year ago, is the digital upgrade of the paper method of tracking international students studying in the United States.

The system is operated by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Department of Homeland Security.

SEVIS officials said the program collects the same biographic information that has been gathered for half a century by the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service

But SEVIS is having a profound effect on the lives of America's international students: Since July 2004, ICE documents reveal that SEVIS has tagged 36,600 international students as "potential student violators" and has been responsible for 155 of their arrests for visa violations.

An international student's decision to study in the United States is a multi-step process, and now "every step of the way is checked into SEVIS," according to Tim Counts, a spokesman for ICE.

When an international student decides to study in the United States, he or she must first be accepted to an "institute of higher learning," according to Counts. If the individual is accepted to that school, a government-certified school official sends him or her a form called an I-20 verifying the student has legitimate academic reasons for coming to the United States and has an education lined up.

It is here the first security issue occurs: Many international students are accepted at multiple schools, Counts said, and receive multiple I-20 forms.

While students destroy a majority of the extra forms, Counts said, there have been incidences of the forms turning up on the black market or being turned into counterfeit papers for would-be illegal immigrants.

Now schools post their accepted international students on SEVIS so the student is sent only one I-20.

"There are no longer a huge number of I-20s floating around," Counts said. "It's a huge security issue."

With the I-20 in hand, the student applies for a student visa. The U.S. embassy or consulate logs this step, too, into SEVIS.

If a student successful in obtaining a student visa comes to the United States, they must check in with a Customs and Border Protection agent at their port of entry. If their documentation is in order, the student's arrival on American soil is entered into SEVIS, and they are allowed into the United States.

When the student reports to school, that, too, is entered into SEVIS.

Therefore, ICE knows what progress a student has made to study in the United States and where he or she stopped checking in if the attempt was aborted.

"All of this was impossible with the paper-based system," Counts said.

Keeping track of international students in the United States is an important aspect of fighting terrorism, Counts said, citing the example of the first World Trade Center bombings in 1993, where at least one of the terrorists was illegally in the United States on a violated student visa.

SEVIS not only keeps track of international students in the United States, but it also alerts ICE when one has committed an act worthy of ICE's suspicion.

"Anything that would violate the terms of their visa sends up a red flag with the government," Counts said, adding such actions could be "getting full-time jobs, transferring schools or dropping out," actions specifically prohibited in the terms of visas.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative branch of Congress that studies government programs for financial efficacy, has given SEVIS a positive review.

The Department of Homeland Security "has taken specific actions to improve SEVIS' performance," according to a GAO statement. "In particular it has installed a series of new software releases and increased help desk staffing and training."

Users of SEVIS appear generally satisfied with its performance.

"I think SEVIS itself as a nationwide management tool is proving very useful," said David Bruey, director of Marquette's Campus International Programs. "There are many advantages to it. The federal government has worked very hard to make it work."

Christoph Brughmans, a junior from Belgium, said he hasn't noticed changes in the study abroad program.

Registration with SEVIS is mandatory for schools who admit international students.

Marquette has about 600 international students from 80 countries on campus, according to Bruey.