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Kinks in foreign-student tracking system

A Web-based system set up by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to keep tabs on foreign students is causing frustration among administrators across the country.

Technical problems with a new Web-based system introduced last month by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for keeping tabs on foreign students is causing frustration among university and college administrators across the country.

The new system, called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), has been so slow and buggy that the INS has extended a Jan. 30 deadline requiring American colleges and universities to begin using the site to Feb. 15, according to an INS representative.

A number of college administrators have complained that paperwork that once took minutes has taken hours and even days using the new online system.

"The overwhelming problem is that it was as slow as molasses," said Christie Dawson, director of federal relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which represents 430 schools across the country.

The performance problem peaked as the Jan. 30 deadline neared and more people logged onto the site, said Chris Bentley, an INS spokesman.

The Web site, which requires a user name and password, is aimed at making sure foreign students take the courses they were approved to take and attend the schools they told the government they would attend. It's also intended to close many loopholes that have led the government to lose track of foreign students.

Bentley said the INS fixed the performance problem last week, but college administrators still have many questions about how to use the site. As mandated by federal regulation, the site requires colleges to collect and report more information about foreign students than they previously did, such as each student's port of entry, notification of reduced course load, and changes in their chosen field of study.

The INS has granted some 3,500 colleges and universities access to SEVIS and is in the midst of approving access for hundreds more, Bentley said. They have until Aug. 1 to complete registration of foreign students in the system.

The INS began building SEVIS after the 1995 bombing of the World Trade Center. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the project took on new urgency when it was discovered that three of the Sept. 11 hijackers were in the United States on student visas. Federal lawmakers approved $34 million in additional funding to expedite the project following the tragedy, Bentley said. The agency, he added, is working with information technology consulting company Electronic Data Systems to design and set up SEVIS.

Nearly 583,000 foreign students enrolled in American colleges and universities in the 2001-2002 school year, according to the Institute of International Education.

Although the transition to SEVIS has been bumpy for some, many understand the need for it.

"We think it's going to work, and we think it's going to be a good system, but it's just taking a while to get up to speed," Dawson said. "It's a tremendous undertaking."