When Susan Van Dijk arrived in the United States from the Netherlands in January, she said she felt more like a prisoner than a University student.
“You have to give your fingerprints and it makes you feel like a criminal,” Dijk said. “When you enter the Netherlands you don’t have to do that. It’s kind of degrading.”
Since Sept. 11, 2001, international students have faced tighter restrictions when applying to study in the United States.
The Department of Homeland Security now requires international students to provide fingerprints and photo identification when entering the country.
Among the increased restrictions is the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, a surveillance program that shifted to a Web-based format last year.
Starting Sept. 1, international students will be required to pay for the controversial system, which monitors their behavior in the United States.
Tightening the system
Congress originally introduced SEVIS in 1996, but didn’t require the educational community to use the paper-based system, said Tim Counts, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But after a hijacker used a student visa to enter the country before flying a plane into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Congress gave the system $36 million and ordered all schools and students to use the system by August 2003.
The system maintains biographical and course information on international students and allows school and federal officials to track them.
As of July, more than 770,000 students and exchange visitors and 100,000 of their dependents were being tracked.
The Web-based format allows the program to track students more easily, Counts said.
Before the electronic system, international students could be issued an I-20 – a key component to receiving a student visa – by each University they were accepted to.
With no way of knowing how many schools the applicant applied to, it was possible for international students to receive multiple I-20s that could then be used by imposters, Counts said.
The Web-based program allows students only one I-20 form, he said.
Prior to the electronic format, SEVIS didn’t track what students did after they arrived in the United States, Counts said.
“They could enter, be inspected, and just never register for classes, and that’s what happened to some of the (Sept. 11) hijackers,” he said.
Information is immediately entered and updated in the Web-based system, Counts said.
Although being tracked can be intimidating, Abdul Basit, a Pakistani student who graduated this month, said he understands the importance of SEVIS.
“As an international student it always keeps you on your feet. You don’t have much leeway and you never want to screw up,” Basit said. “But for the government’s security, it’s good.”
According to the Department of Homeland Security, SEVIS has caught 1,600 visa violations, resulting in 155 arrests.
Paying for security
For the last eight years, Congress has funded SEVIS. But beginning Sept. 1, international students will pay a $100 fee to cover the cost, Counts said.
“People who can afford to pay the cost of coming to a U.S. school from abroad can afford to pay $100,” he said. “The average tax payer shouldn’t be paying for this, the user should.”
But Kay Thomas, director of international students and scholar services at the University, said universities will still pay for technology upkeep.
Thomas said the University has spent thousands of dollars on the program.
“Whether it’s worth it or not, I have no idea,” she said. “Obviously we want to be safe, but my sense is maybe there are other things that could be done.”
Coming to America
Other restrictions aimed at international students have drawn criticism from the educational community.
Thomas said it is now more difficult for international students to obtain student visas.
“They’ve raised the bar pretty high,” she said. “People need to show they have funding and intend to return to their home country.”
To be eligible for the visa, students must be enrolled in a full-time academic program, be proficient in English or be enrolled in English courses and have sufficient funding.
Aditya Malhotra said he was rejected a student visa the first time he applied because the counselor said he was a “potential immigrant.” Malhotra said he thinks it was because he had visited the country four times with tourist visas.
A different counselor accepted the sophomore University student three weeks later without a change in his paperwork.
Turning students off
Thomas said she thinks the government focuses too closely on foreign students.
“Students represent less than 2 percent of people coming into the country on visas,” she said. “But because they’re easy to get at, they’re an easy target.”
Thomas said she does not think international students should have to report their credit load and area of study.
International students don’t complain much about SEVIS, but more about obtaining visas, Thomas said. And that worries her, she said.
“If people can’t get here, that’s going to change the quality of education the University of Minnesota can provide,” she said.
Thomas said there has been a decline in enrollment and visa applications for the University.
Ursula Oaks, spokeswoman for NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said a survey conducted earlier this year showed a substantial decline in applications to the top 25 research institutions that enroll international graduate students.
The 19 responding schools said applications have declined; nine said by 30 percent or more.
Also, out of 250 institutions surveyed nationwide, almost half said their graduate applications are down for this coming semester from last year.
Oaks said she thinks the United States’ visa process might be partially to blame for the decline.
“What we’ve seen over the last couple years is a worrisome trend of the restrictions on visas,” she said. “Students are applying in greater numbers and enrolling in greater numbers to other countries. The competition for recruiting the brightest students from around the world is high.”