BOSTON -- Bilal Zuberi, a 26-year-old Pakistani studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says there is nothing in his background that should make him fear U.S. immigration authorities.
Even so, he says he has a gnawing anxiety about what will happen with the personal and academic information that MIT must submit to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Thousands of U.S. colleges and universities must soon begin supplying information about their foreign students to a new, online INS tracking system.
"There's a lot of information that's going to be collected, and we don't know how it's going to be used," said Zuberi, who is pursuing a doctorate in chemistry. "People are literally afraid that if they don't pay a $5 library fine, they could be deported."
By Jan. 30, campuses across the country must be prepared to submit information on new international students. Schools cannot accept new foreign students until they comply. Information on foreign students already enrolled, such as Zuberi, is due Aug. 1.
Anxiety is running high among some students, including Zuberi, who are also subject to new INS registration requirements for men from certain Arab or Muslim countries. Last month, about 400 such men were taken into custody in Los Angeles after they showed up to register.
Also last month, six Colorado students were arrested by the INS because they were not signed up for enough courses.
The new Internet-based tracking system is called the Student and Exchange Visa Information Service and was up and running as of Jan. 1. The INS already requires information from foreign students and their schools, but SEVIS will replace the cumbersome paper-based system the INS has used for years. In the past, schools kept the information in files, which the INS had the right to see on request.
INS spokesman Christopher Bentley said the new system is more efficient and accurate.
"Students just need to stay in compliance with their immigration status, make sure that they're taking the courses they're supposed to and stay out of trouble," he said. "The system is not tracking library fines. It's tracking foreign students staying in the U.S."
The INS has had a mandate to create a computerized system since 1996. But the long-delayed overhaul took on new urgency after the Sept. 11 attacks. Some of the hijackers had entered the United States on student visas.
"Will SEVIS be able to stop the next 9-11? No. But it's part of a clear approach to helping national security in the United States," Bentley said.
The system troubles some students and school administrators, who worry that it will harm the thousands of students who come to the United States legally and without ill intent.
"Students are very distressed by it and very worried," said Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook, director of MIT's International Student Office. "The ramifications of making a mistake, or if someone doesn't get registered within 30 days, could have profound implications down the line if it cancels their legal status."
The information falls into 19 broad categories that include academic, personal and financial information about the students and their dependents, any disciplinary action, off-campus employment, and whether they have dropped below a full course of study.
Edith Karam, a 21-year-old graduate student from Bahrain studying international relations at Suffolk University in Boston, said foreign students, particularly Arabs, increasingly feel as if they are being treated like terrorists.
"There's a feeling that they're picking on us," she said.
Massachusetts had the nation's fourth-largest international student population in 2002, with about 30,000 of the nearly 583,000 international students enrolled in U.S. schools.
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