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New database tracks foreign students
Minnesota's colleges and universities are about to go online with a new federal electronic database designed to track the state's nearly 9,000 international students. The idea for a system to track foreigners emerged after terrorists bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. The project was a low priority for years. But after Sept. 11, anti-terrorism legislation put the database on the fast track. International students say they don't mind the increased scrutiny, as long as it doesn't lead to discrimination against them.

St. Paul, Minn. — The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, highlighted the possibility that not all those here on student visas are simply studying.

One of the hijackers was on a student visa. Two more hijackers had their student visas approved - posthumously. The visas arrived six months after Sept. 11.

"The events of 9/11, and the way they unfolded, the six months after, the foreign student visas ... That is an indication of what SEVIS is going to correct," says Chris Bentley, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

SEVIS is the acronym for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, a new electronic database.

Starting Jan. 30, 2003, all international students, from high school through the PhD level, will be tracked through the system.

The data required includes date of entry and port of entry, and any changes students make to their graduation date, course load, or any time their marital status, address, or phone number changes.

Bentley says it's data that's always been required by the INS. SEVIS will simply replace the outdated and inefficient paper-based system the INS currently uses to process student visas.

Bentley says the instant access to information SEVIS provides should make it harder for people to use student visas fraudulently.

"Is the SEVIS database system going to guarantee that never again will we have another 9/11 type of incident? The answer to that is absolutely, positively not," says Bentley. "There's nothing that can be guaranteed by a collection of information that is going to keep us from having this type of incident potentially happening in the future."

Schools will be responsible for notifying the INS online of information they used to send manually.

Over the past year, Minnesota's colleges and universities have invested tens of thousands of dollars in software upgrades, and hundreds of personnel hours getting ready to go online with SEVIS by the Jan. 30 federal deadline. Most of the state's colleges say they'll be ready.

But for some administrators, there are other concerns.

Aaron Colhapp, international student coordinator for Macalester College, says he worries increased security measures like the tracking system could lead to discrimination against foreign students.

"They're coming to study English, they're coming to study anthropology. They're not studying nuclear engineering or pilots or other things, so I don't want their lives to be changed because of some bad apples," says Colhapp. International educators say foreign students are an asset to the state, culturally and financially. According to the Institute of International Education, foreign students spent an estimated $162 million in Minnesota last year.

Many students say they don't have any problem with the new tracking system, and see it as part of being an international student.

Brij Bhasin is a U of M computer science student from New Delhi, India. He is Sikh and wears a turban as part of his religious practice. Bhasin's native country is one of eight listed as being of particular interest to the U.S. government.

Bhasin says he accepts the added scrutiny. But, he says he does worry the SEVIS database could lead to more policies that single out foreign students.

"Agreed, we are aliens over here, we are called aliens. But, that would just make people judge me even more than I already have been judged. If I'm brown, people do look at you in a certain way. And I have experienced that in the past after 9/11," says Bhasin.

INS officials say the SEVIS database is the start of a system that will branch out to include visiting foreigners on other types of visas.

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