Federal immigration officials on Monday were at Kansas University explaining a new computer tracking system for keeping better tabs on foreign students.
Planning for the new system began years ago after the first World Trade Center bombing. But since Sept. 11, putting the new system to work has become a top priority, officials said.
About 1,750 international students enroll yearly at KU. About 200 visiting researchers and faculty each year come from abroad.
"If I have a student who enrolls but doesn't show up, under the system we have now, nine months could go by, easy, before I'd know where he was or if there was a problem. Unless he was physically on campus, I had no way of knowing," said Michael Hernandez, coordinator of international student services at Park University in Parkville, Mo.
Hernandez was one of about 125 university officials from Kansas and Missouri who attended the Immigration and Naturalization Service seminar on the new Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, known as SEVIS.
KU officials said they welcomed improvements, but they had concerns about the costs of meeting the new requirements.
"This is an unfunded mandate," said Joe Potts, KU director of international students and scholars services.
While the cost to KU for complying with SEVIS is unclear, it will be "significant," Potts said.
Starting in January 2003, all U.S. schools, colleges and universities accepting international students will be required to be on SEVIS. Plans call for SEVIS being operational next month.
The new system is not designed to gather more information; instead, using the Internet, it will share information among federal watchdog agencies much quicker.
Using SEVIS, school officials are expected to notify the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service when students arrive or don't arrive. Also, they are to report when students drop out.
"Schools have always had this information. It's been available; it's just not been shared to the extent it will be under SEVIS," Potts said.
SEVIS is expected to close a loophole that in years past allowed international students to enter the United States under the guise of going to school, knowing there was little chance their whereabouts would be tracked.
INS began planning and testing SEVIS in 1995, two years after learning a participant in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center was living in the United States on an expired student visa.
The initiative became a top priority after it became apparent that at least one of the Sept. 11 hijackers had entered the country on a student visa, followed by the news that six months after the attack, the INS-approved student visas had arrived at the Florida flight school that had unwittingly trained two of the hijackers.
"There needs to be a better system," Hernandez said. "And this looks like it'll be better."
But there are concerns:
Small schools those with fewer than 75 international students can forward their information via the Internet. But larger schools are expected to buy new "batching" software. Federal aid to buy the software is not available.
Hernandez said he expected Park University to spend about $10,000 on SEVIS.
Data-entry errors will cause major problems for incoming students.
"The error tolerance within SEVIS is very low," Potts said. "Schools are going to be under a lot of pressure to be both efficient and accurate in the data entry. Otherwise, I'm afraid we're going to see students held up or turned away at the borders because the information on their passports or their visas doesn't match what's in SEVIS."
These inconveniences, he said, are likely to give international students the impression they are not welcome in the United States.
"If that happens, it would be tragedy," Potts said.
International students at KU still aren't sure what to make of SEVIS.
"As long as it doesn't get into information that most people would consider private, I'm for it," said , a senior from Saudi Arabia majoring in petroleum engineering.
Hakami said he, too, feared SEVIS having a chilling effect on international students coming to the United States
"Coming here, I've gained a great a whole of different perspectives I wouldn't have had if I'd stayed in my country," he said.
INS officials at the KU forum declined to be interviewed for this story.