FBI gets access to SEVIS

Matthew Gruchow

It is now easier for one more government agency to monitor foreign students in the United States.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced last week that it will give the FBI direct access to financial data and other information about international students, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education.

Previously, the FBI was required to ask the Homeland Security Department’s permission to access information collected by the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. The database contains information on all international students’ coursework, finances and other biographical data.

An FBI spokeswoman told the Chronicle of Higher Education that access to SEVIS will help the department combat terrorists.

Craig Peterson, assistant director of the Office of International Student and Scholar Services, said he understands why the FBI wants access to SEVIS. Yet, more mistakes and problems might occur because more government agencies will have access, he said.

“I think it reinforces that it seems to be the official policy of the government that international students are a threat and are to be treated as a threat,” Peterson said.

The FBI will monitor access to the system to ensure students’ information isn’t being misused, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education article.

Students can file a complaint if they feel their information was used wrongly, the report states.

However, few students will report possible wrongdoing, Hartle said.

“I suspect that if you’re an international student you’ll be very reluctant to exercise any recourse you might have for fear of retaliation,” he said.

Giving the FBI direct access to SEVIS will have little impact on students, because the agency could already get the information it wanted from the Homeland Security Department, Hartle said.

Instead, more focus should be given to making the United States the destination of choice for future generations of students, he said.

“I think the most important thing is to have a process that is both predictable and transparent,” he said. “We don’t think we’ve reached that point just yet.”

Omar Jadwat, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said it remains

unclear how the FBI will use and distribute SEVIS information.

The FBI doesn’t have a thorough understanding of SEVIS information, he said, and could mistakenly accuse foreign students of violations.

“The FBI doesn’t have the necessary context about what the information in SEVIS means,” Jadwat said.

Foreign students who are currently enrolled at the University are used to the government having access to their information, said Aditya Malhotra, the vice president of the Minnesota International Student Association.

But the policy change could make future foreign students feel like criminals, because the FBI is a law enforcement agency, he said.

“For someone who is here, they can look at it in a more practical way than someone who is new to the country,” Malhotra said.

Several attempts to receive comment from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security were unsuccessful.