Government tracks foreign students

Government tracks foreign students
If foreign students at the University of Nevada, Reno, next year feel as if they’re being watched a bit more closely, there’ll be good reason for it. The government will be keeping much closer tabs on them.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service took a step toward an Internet-based computer system that enables the INS to compile information about foreign students in a central location. The nation’s universities, including the UNR, will provide the data.

The Student Exchange and Visitor Information System, or SEVIS, will give the INS and the State Department information about students, including fingerprints, grades, marital status, club memberships, basically anything except medical records. On July 1, the INS began enrolling schools in the program, which will be activated early next year.

“This brings us one step closer to implementing SEVIS,” said INS Commissioner James Ziglar. “SEVIS promises to revolutionize the way information about foreign students is shared between schools and the INS.”

The Justice Department and the INS are required to track nearly one million non-immigrant foreign students and exchange visitors in the United States. This program moved to the front burner after it appeared that several of the Sept. 11 hijackers were in the country on expired student visas.

“Post-9/11, SEVIS was fast tracked,” said Susan Bender, the director of the Office of International Students and Scholars at the University of Nevada, Reno. “It’s an easy place for the government to start, because all international students have to report to a university.”

Bender said the process of enrolling a foreign student isn’t complicated, but it provides a one-stop shop for the government for a lot of personal information—which raises complicated civil-liberties questions.

“Once students are admitted, they are issued I-20 immigration documents,” Bender said. “The I-20 becomes a means by which students can be tracked by providing a paper trail, until we go completely electronic in January.”

Bender warned that this sort of surveillance could set a bad precedent, suggesting that it would be easy to make the transition from foreign students to all students.

Still, tracking foreign students in the name of national security might be make foreign students feel, well, insecure.

A former employee of the International Students and Scholars office said that authorities have already been tracking students at UNR.

“In mid-to-late August, a well-dressed man with an INS badge and a handful of illegal warrants wanted to subpoena information about six Muslim students here at UNR,” the ex-employee said. “They were bogus warrants because they were signed by a local INS authority and not by a judge. We didn’t hand over the students’ information. We consulted with the university’s legal department, who said that we were in the right. When he returned with legal paperwork, we had to turn over three of the six students’ records.”

Susan Bender, the director of the Office of International Students and Scholars, declined to comment on the warrants.

The INS has proposed that SEVIS become mandatory for all schools that want to enroll foreign students.