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Database dilemma: INS gaffe spurs changes in foreign-student tracking laws. (Update).

The timing couldn't have been worse when the Immigration and Naturalization Service had to explain why, in March, a Florida flight school received student visa approvals for Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, six months after their suicidal jet attacks on the World Trade Center. But the error may ultimately serve to build support for a controversial INS plan to upgrade its foreign student database and create timely communication with the schools these students attend.

An INS spokesman said the student visas were approved last summer before the pair surfaced as terrorists, but the INS failed to instruct a private contractor to delete the 9/11 terrorists from its approved list. That company processed the visa requests and issued letters to the flight school six months later.

The INS says it will tighten communication with contractors to prevent future errors, but some college administrators are skeptical The student visa system has so far been "a mess," says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. The INS hopes that SEVIS, a database initiative born out of the U.S. Patriot Act, may help solve the problems. SEVIS, expected to be online by January 2003, is a Web-based database that will track all foreign students in the United States. "Schools don't have to take any proactive measures to comply with the act," says Tracy Mitrano, co-director of Cornell University's Computer Policy and Law Program, and a policy adviser for the IT office.

Using SEVIS, the INS will send an alert when a foreign student has been granted a visa and has entered the county; the school then notifies the INS when that student has arrived on campus. A foreign student is expected to arrive on campus 30 days from enrollment date.

While the system sounds simple, many questions remain. The Patriot Act allows expanded surveillance of foreign students, including their Internet activities. Agents can monitor the number of e-mail messages to and from a particular address, but can't automatically review the content of those messages. Still, it's not clear what rights the reds have to monitor e-mail subject lines. "We know the extremes, but we don't know the middle point," says Mitrano.

Congress allocated $36.8 million to launch the database, but each foreign student also will be required to pay a $95 fee to help defray expenses. Schools balked at the original plan to have colleges and universities collect the fee, says Nassirian. INS changed the rules, insisting foreign students forward the fee to one bank in Chicago.

Victor Johnson, associate executive director for the Association of International Educators, wants the procedure made easier on students from underdeveloped countries. "We think the government should allow a foreign student to pay the $95 fee when he or she pays a visa fee," he says. Otherwise, these students, mired in system delays, may miss the beginning weeks of a semester while they are waiting for the fee and paperwork to clear.
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Author:Angelo, Jean Marie
Publication:University Business
Date:Apr 1, 2002
Words:495
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