KU, other universities keep government informed on status of international students

As reports emerged Friday that the U.S. Homeland Security Department has ordered extra security in the student visa process in the wake of the Boston bombings, officials at Kansas University and Kansas State University said they’re already keeping close tabs on the status of their international students, as required.

In order to keep their certification to enroll international students, KU and other universities must update a federal database at least every semester on each student’s status in school, said Chuck Olcese, director of international student services at KU.

That process begins before international students’ visas are ever approved. When an international student applies to KU, Olcese explained, he or she must use an application process different from that for domestic students.

Prospective international students must submit not only their academic qualifications but also proof that they can fund their education for at least one year. If they’re accepted KU will issue an electronic form that allows the visa process to begin. That form includes the specific program the student is applying for, how long that program is expected to last, and other information. All that information goes into that database.

The terms of those visas vary from country to country. Once students arrive at KU, Olcese said his office helps make sure they follow those terms — and immediately updates the federal database if they don’t.

“That’s a big part of our role: just letting the student know what they need to do to maintain that status,” Olcese said.

The Homeland Security database, called SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System), was created after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And it was at the center of new orders made this week by Homeland Security, reported Friday by the Associated Press.

The order from a senior official at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, David J. Murphy, came one day after the Obama administration acknowledged that a student from Kazakhstan, who was accused of hiding evidence for one of the Boston bombing suspects, was allowed to return to the U.S. in January without a valid student visa.

The visa for Azamat Tazhayakov had been terminated, because he’d withdrawn from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. But, when he arrived in New York on Jan. 20, the border agent at the airport did not have access to the SEVIS database.

Tazhayakov and a second Kazakh student were arrested this week on federal charges of obstruction of justice. They were accused of helping to get rid of a backpack containing fireworks linked to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. A third student was also arrested and accused of lying to authorities.

Existing procedures allow border agents to verify a student’s visa status through SEVIS only when the person is referred to a second officer for additional inspection or questioning. Under the new order, all border agents are expected to have access to SEVIS by next week.

Because of the database and the information universities put into it, Olcese said, international students are actually watched more closely than other people visiting the country.

“All this boils down to the fact that the student visa system is the most-watched system in the immigration process,” Olcese said. “There’s no other classification that has this kind of interaction and exchange of information.”

For instance, if a student is dismissed or leaves the university, KU will immediately inform the government, and that student would have 21 days to leave the country or enroll in another school. After they graduate, they have a 60-day grace period to head back home or change to another visa status. And all the while, the government knows what’s happening, Olcese said.

That means international students leave more of a documented trail than, say, someone in the country on a visitor visa, he said.

As of fall 2012, KU had more than 2,100 international students enrolled, from 102 different countries. Those numbers at K-State were about 2,050 students from 108 countries. K-State follows a similar process to assist and monitor its international students, said Sara Thurston-Gonzalez, director of international student and scholar services there.

Across all 32 Kansas Board of Regents institutions, more than 14,000 international students are enrolled, said Regents spokeswoman Vanessa Lamoreaux.