US college officials are struggling to meet an Aug. 1 deadline to register all foreign students with federal authorities under post-Sept. 11 security laws, but they complain many innocent foreigners could be denied an American education or even be deported due to computer glitches in the registration system.
Campus offices that deal with foreign students are cutting back day-to-day services and working 14-hour days, but administrators say they still are stymied in trying to load information into the Student and Exchange Visitor Information Service, known as SEVIS.
"The database is flawed. It couldn't have been done worse," said Gail Szenes, director of New York University's (NYU) Office for International Students and Scholars.
Foreigners omitted from the database will face strict scrutiny before their visas are renewed, and administrators fear some students will be denied visas unfairly simply because their names are not properly registered.
Worse, they say, is that some foreign students will feel compelled to turn elsewhere for higher education, creating tensions between the US and the young men and women likely to become influential leaders in their own countries.
Michael Brzezinski, director of the international students office at Purdue University, said that last summer 60 students at the Indiana school were denied visas or got them late, several for minor technical reasons. He said that until SEVIS is made more efficient, the trend will likely continue.
"There has been some damage done," he said. "I am aware of at least two government programs, in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, that are now sending their students to other countries."
Chris Bentley, a spokesman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that oversees the SEVIS system, said the agency would not be able to tell whether the stricter registration system had discouraged some students from coming to the US until full numbers would be available after the Aug. 1 deadline.
Downplaying any troubles with the system, Bentley said 950,000 names have been registered and predicted the number would reach 1.2 million by the deadline. He also said the SEVIS system should turn out to be an improvement.
"In the past we had an antiquated paper system," he said. "I think it is going to speed up the process through which students come to the US and allow that to be done more easily."
College officials argued, however, that the government had not fully developed the system when it mandated last December that all universities transfer their paper records on overseas students to the computerized system.
A trial version of SEVIS debuted in 2000, and just 20 schools had begun using the program in 2001 when the USA Patriot Act required all colleges to adopt the new system.
Although the government allocated US$36.8 million to the system, many college officials agree that lawmakers took disastrous shortcuts.
"We were just beginning to test the program in July 2001, and then 9-11 hit," said Catheryn Cotton, director of the International Office at Duke University, which was part of the SEVIS pilot program. "The new SEVIS system was written and pushed through so quickly that a lot of the kinks we worked out worked their way back into the system."
One of the most significant "kinks" is that the SEVIS program does not successfully deliver the students' information to the consulates which issue visas in their home country, college officials say.