Deadline for tracking int’l students jolts nerves

The staff at International Programs is breathing a bit easier this week, but unknown federal regulations and deadlines governing the tracking of international students and scholars still have that office nervous.

The distress of Sept. 11, including the ongoing war on terrorism and the formation of a Homeland Security department, has brought numerous changes to international programs at universities nationwide. The biggest change was a requirement that all colleges and universities provide real-time tracking of international students via electronic forms. That information and system must be in place and functioning no later than Jan. 30, 2003 — less than five months away.

Failure to comply can result in severe penalties to an institution, and the inability to enroll new students and scholars.

“Many of the current reporting requirements have always been there,” said Mary Furnari, assistant director of Washington State University’s International Student Services. “In the past, if someone was not complying with the rules, we could have denied that person benefits such as on- or off-campus employment, but we didn’t have to report it. Under the new regulations, we need to report any deviation — dropping below full-time status, change of residence, change of major, etc. The biggest change for us is that the mechanics of the reporting system have changed.”

Part of the problem is that many of the new INS regulations are in flux, awaiting clearer definition and final approval.

“We don’t know how many of these proposed regulations will be passed into law before Jan. 30,” Furnari noted.

Helping boost the anxiety level, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has noted that institutions must be compliant with the new system in order to issue visa documents after Jan. 30, which could prohibit WSU from admitting new international students. Existing students who fail to maintain their status could face fines or possible deportation.

“We’re getting nervous,” said Mary Furnari, assistant director of Washington State University’s International Student Services. “We had a meeting last week looking at vendor (software) products that could help us comply with federal regulations. WSU administrators are in the process of making a decision to buy one of these products and are discussing personnel requirements. However, a final decision has not been made. I’m nervous, because we need to begin moving on this in order to meet the INS deadline.

“This is a drop-dead deadline. We anticipate some changes in the regulations, but the law very clearly states that beginning Jan. 30 we must provide the appropriate information though electronic documents that are compliant with the Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).

“Our challenge is getting the pieces in place technologically to do that,” Furnari said. “That involves a lot of different offices working together, including Admissions, the Graduate School, Information Technology, Student Services, Registrar, Student Financial Aid, Payroll Services and others. That means we need to obtain the necessary funding and purchase a vendor product that will help us achieve compliance, and solve a lot of logistical challenges.”

The INS recently clarified what its deadline means. The agency says that while colleges must start using the SEVIS system by Jan. 30, they need not have entered information about all foreign students by then.

INS officials told “The Chronicle of Higher Education” that the deadline colleges face is not nearly as drastic as they think. “The bottom line is the schools have a lot more time to get existing students into the system,” said Russell A. Bergeron Jr., an INS spokesman.

Here’s the rub. Once the INS approves an institution to join SEVIS, the college must file all of its I-20 forms (visa-eligibility forms that colleges fill out to show that foreign students are academically and financially qualified to study in the United States) through the system from that point forward. So, WSU needs to be collecting all the required data elements once the institution is registered with SEVIS.

However, says M. Stella Jarina, who is director of student operations for the immigrant-services division of the INS and the SEVIS project leader, the only foreign students those colleges need to report by the Jan. 30 deadline are those who change their status — for instance, if a student selects a new major, or drops below a full-time student status — or those who enroll in the spring term if it begins after the deadline.

In other words, if a college’s spring semester starts before Jan. 30 — like WSU — the institution can have until the next term, the fall of 2003, to enter its student records into SEVIS.

The “Chronicle” stated that most colleges are worried that the currently proposed policy could result in hundreds or thousands of institutions having to shut down their international-student offices until they can comply with the new system.

Ironically, college officials wonder how the INS is going to meet its own deadline, considering it still has to finish drafting the regulations that will govern SEVIS, as well as the system itself. The Justice Department’s inspector general released a report on May 20 stating that “it is unlikely that the INS will be able to meet the Jan. 30, 2003, deadline for full implementation of SEVIS.”

Another major challenge for universities is tracking student attendance. In many larger classes, recording day-to-day attendance is not practical.

“The INS is well aware of the fact that 99% of the students here are doing what they are supposed to — going to class, getting an education. The ones they want to know about are the other 1 percent,” said Furnari. “The INS knows that taking daily attendance is not realistic, but they are looking for ways to effectively track those students.

“If a faculty member notices that an international student is not attending class, they need to notify us. It’s important that faculty work closely with us on this. We’re also asking faculty and staff to make a mental note and keep track of students and researchers who are here on a visa.

“Having said that, we want to stress that International Student Services is here to serve students and scholars. We want departments and international clientele to feel free to call us if they have questions or need assistance.”

WSU enrolled about 1,200 international students in 2001 – 02, plus about 300 visiting scholars.

INS regulations are complex and subject to frequent change. It is a foreign student’s responsibility to obtain the correct information and comply with regulations and to maintain his/her lawful nonimmi-grant status while in the United States. The INS does not accept ignorance of its regulations as a justifiable reason for breaking those regulations. Therefore, all questions regarding immigration matters should be directed to the International Student Advisors in International Programs.

Related story: Int’l Programs names directors

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