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Student visa program efficacy questioned

By Dmitri Pikman

April 22, 2004 9:00 p.m.

UCLA officials are confident in the benefits of a recently
implemented system to track international students, though some
government agents say the system is not being thoroughly used by
customs officials.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, which is
run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is used to keep
track of students entering the United States with a student
visa.

Jill Drury, national director of the SEVIS program, said customs
officials ““ whom students encounter when they enter the
country ““ currently do not have access to SEVIS.

“The information is available via other systems, which
inspectors do have access to,” Drury said.

Customs officials are responsible for checking records of
students entering the country and deciding which ones need further
background checks.

A student designated as needing further checks would then be
referred to a second line of customs agents.

The second line of agents are the ones who deal directly with
SEVIS and have ready access to the system.

Critics of SEVIS say by making educational institutions comply
with the national SEVIS system schools are forced to waste manpower
and funds on something of relatively little value.

“We are a small university and so we had to scratch and
scrape to find creative solutions to implement SEVIS at our school,
since we were mandated by law to do so by August,” said Brian
Mylrea, director of international students affairs at Tennessee
Technological University.

SEVIS became uniform throughout all higher education
institutions in August 2003.

“We would hope that very soon in the future all the
officers at the port of entry would have access to SEVIS. It would
make the system more efficient,” Mylrea said.

Drury said currently the Department of Homeland Security is
working toward providing SEVIS directly to the first line of custom
officials, but there is no time frame for full system
implementation.

The system is being fully supported at the Office of
International Students and Scholars at UCLA, where it is most
heavily used on campus.

Rahimah Herd, a fourth-year English student and an assistant in
the international center, said she believes in the benefits of
SEVIS, not only for the government but for UCLA, as well.

“I think it has much more of an advantage (and is) so much
more convenient,” Herd said of the SEVIS system.

Lawrence Gower, director of the Office of International Students
and Scholars, also praised the new system when comparing it to the
pre-2003 system at UCLA, which like at many campuses nationwide,
consisted of paper documentation.

“It’s like a horse and buggy compared to a
jet,” Gower said of the new computerized tracking.

“The SEVIS system is much more efficient. Reporting is
instantaneous. It is vast (and) much more comprehensive,” he
said.

Hannah Bar-Giora, director of the international students program
at Philadelphia University, said she

doesn’t believe the SEVIS system being unavailable to
custom officials would make the system any less efficient.

“I don’t really think it’s a horrible thing.
It might slow things up a little if they had to do everything
through SEVIS,” Bar-Giora said.

“First-line custom officials are experienced enough to see
if there is a problem, and, if there is, it can go on to further
scrutiny,” she added.

Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Immigration and
Customs Enforcement, said the first line of officials is very good
at determining which students need further attention, and they are
very competent at picking up anything suspicious such as false
documentation.

“It would be very difficult in today’s world to
sneak into the United States with a false I-20,” Mack said,
referring to documents international students need to receive visas
to the United States.

Though currently federally funded, Congress has mandated for the
SEVIS program to be funded through system fees, which would be paid
by the international students.

The new fee is expected to increase filing costs for a student
by about $100 and will go into effect some time this year.

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