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Roll Call

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 4/23/2003

As the feds clap the dust of Iraq from their hands, the War on Terror returns home, and to turf that is as familiar with war as any: the quadrangles of the hometown college. Campuses may be better known as vanguards of anti-war sentiment, but in keeping with these restive times, American universities are now becoming an important flank in the home front, like it or not.In accordance with Congressional mandate, as of Aug. 1, all U.S. colleges will have to link up with a new federal Internet-based database designed to register, track, and update the activity of all the foreign students on their rolls, so the data can be monitored by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The plan already completed its first phase Jan. 1, the deadline by which institutions had to modify their computer networks to accommodate the new system, known as the Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Since then, administrators have been struggling with the logistics and politics of their revised roles as immigration beat cops. For Baltimore-area schools, the demands of these new measures depend largely on demographics.

For Frankie Martin, director of multiethnic and international student affairs at the Maryland Institute College of Art, keeping up with SEVIS is little more than a technical headache. She has 72 foreign students under her charge, a mere 5 percent of the art school's student body, and her work is already almost done. On her end, SEVIS requires that foreign students provide all the personal information they gave under the old system--name, address, birthday, birthplace, country of citizenship, course of study, tuition, and income--but now it all goes immediately into the federal database, and all students are issued a bar code. According to the new guidelines, any modification in their data--a change of address, even a change in major--has to be updated at once, but the tidy size of her student pool helps keep things simple. With all but three of her students already registered with SEVIS, Martin approaches the new security measures with bureaucratic nonchalance.

"Students understand that this is a requirement and they've been allowed to the U.S. to pursue their education," she says. "Even U.S. students have to go through certain requirements when they go overseas. This is just something that international students have to do."

Across town, the prospect is somewhat different. Nicholas Arrindell, director of the office of international student and scholar services at the Johns Hopkins University, is a little jealous of his MICA colleague. "She's got the easy part," he says.

Arrindell oversees a network of offices that attract, place, and counsel some 4,000 international students, and SEVIS has put him on an awkward war footing. Not the least of his troubles is simply having to gather much more of the same information that Martin does, then filtering all that constantly changing data through a new computer system. There have been bugs.

"Some days you're in the [computer] application, and it just dies--cuts off," Arrindell says. "It's very frustrating, because prior to this we could just do it all on a typewriter. It's created a tremendous amount of anxiety in all of our offices."

Even more anxiety-provoking, though, is the chilling effect these new measures appear to be having on foreign students, especially among new--or potentially new--scholars. In the trade that is international education, Arrindell says, SEVIS is bad marketing.

"A lot [of new students] have been accepted to schools in France or England and other places where there's more of a welcoming admission process, rather than demanding a security check that requires you be part of our system," he says. "If you have a kid that's been accepted to a British institution and an American institution, what that kid needs to do in order to get here is jump through a lot of different hoops. The students, in some sense, are being challenged as to whether or not they can be permitted, after being admitted to our institution, to be here."

His office, he explains, has already felt the deterrent effects that comes with heightened security: A handful of foreign students have declined to study here because it's "too much trouble."

As to whether SEVIS is worth his trouble, Arrindell is noncommittal. He doesn't doubt that the system will be much more efficient--"Historically, INS did a lousy job of managing our data," he says--but concerns about SEVIS's subtler consequences may be hard to dispel. It would be easier, he notes, if he knew exactly what the government will be doing with his information.

"If it's going to be used as a piece of enforcement, used against the student in some strange way, you kind of get edgy about that," Arrindell says. "But if in fact they're using it just as positive statistical research information, then that's different. That's completely different. But no one knows how this stuff is going to be used."

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Walk Softly (11/25/2009)
Middle East scholar Juan Cole argues against sending lots of troops to Afghanistan

Iraq War Hits Home Hard (5/22/2008)

More from Blake de Pastino

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Mind Candy (5/4/2005)
Lee Boot Discovers the Source of Happiness and the Meaning of Life

Lori Larusso: The Whole and the Small (5/4/2005)

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