Foreign students at SEMO register with feds

Wednesday, August 6, 2003

The U.S. government now knows the names, addresses and majors of each of the roughly 230 international students at Southeast Missouri State University, the result of a new program intended to keep track of foreign students in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Last Friday, the university met a deadline for U.S. colleges and universities to enter detailed information about international students into a centralized database, which is part of a program called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS.

"You don't have too many choices on deadlines like that," said Adelaide Parsons, director of the university's International Programs. "We met it."

Parsons said her office actually entered 260 names, but some of those students have left and may not return this fall and others have gone on to practical training. She estimated that there are about 230 international students at Southeast.

Universities must be registered first and it is a lengthy process, including a site visit by SEVIS officials and a comprehensive review for re-authorization, Parsons said.

Once registered, school officials are given user names and passwords so they can enter the computer database and provide student information ranging from course load to dependents for the estimated 1 million foreign students and scholars who enter the United States each year.

Parsons said they also wanted to know such information as date of birth, country and city of birth, financial information, educational background and marital status.

"It was very detailed," Parsons said. "They're monitoring closely and it's gotten very rigid."

The database is run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and immigration officials will begin later this month reviewing the information to make sure that foreigners who entered the country on student visas are legitimate.

University officials now are turning their attention to the next major SEVIS deadline. Thirty days after the beginning of a school's fall semester, colleges are required to report whether foreign students have registered for class, and whether they're taking the number of course units stipulated in their immigration papers.

In 1996, Congress authorized SEVIS as a way to keep track of the large number of foreigners who enter the United States on student visas. The goal was to reduce the misuse of visas to gain entry into the country.

For years, the system was put on hold because of worries that it would be a huge burden on universities and a barrier to foreign students, who the government estimates contribute about $12 billion to the U.S. economy through tuition, living expenses and related costs.

Those concerns, however, were dismissed after it was learned that one of the Sept. 11 hijackers entered the United States on student visas and never showed up to class.

Foreign students on the campus of Southeast Tuesday seemed understanding of the situation.

"I think it's a correct thing to do," said Vibhu Grover, a 22-year-old accounting major from India. "It's just cautious. It's not like they look at us like suspects. It's just being smart about it."

Grover also didn't object too much that the government is becoming more strict regarding the number of classes students take. International students have always had to have "full loads" -- 12 hours of classes for undergraduates and nine for graduate students.

Under the old rules, there were two ways to circumvent that: an academic problem or a medical excuse. But under new federal guidelines students can only fall below a full load once in their academic career.

"It's good in a way, because I've known people who come here to chill out," Grover said. "They end up dropping a class. But I guess it would be bad if you had some sort of emergency."

Ikuko Fujiwara, 28, of Japan, teaches intensive English to foreign students. She's heard no complaints.

"They understand it," she said. "If something happens, it's always good to be careful. With what happened, you have to have higher security."

George Dordoni, an international student adviser at the university, said seminars were given to educate students on the nuances of the new regulations. Student reaction has varied.

"Most of our international students don't come from countries where there's a vague terrorist threat," he said. "They find it sort of ironic."

Many of the students come from Japan, Europe and Latin America, he said. He said he doesn't think Southeast has any students from countries such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- nations mentioned as President Bush's "axis of evil."

"I think they laugh sometimes," Dordoni said. "They know they're not terrorists."

335-6611, extension 137

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