After finishing her business degree, Lek Supaluk thought she could make more money working in New York City than in her native Thailand. Unable to find any employers to sponsor her working visa, she began looking for a way around the system.
“I bought an I-20,” said Supaluk referring to a document that allows foreigners to apply for student visas. “On record I enrolled in a language school but I never go to class because my school is in Los Angeles.” She thought she found a magic formula to stay in the United States.
But her luck might run out. This type of minor immigration law violation is no longer tolerated. Last month the Immigration and Naturalization Services started a new computerized system called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information or SEVIS. The $36 million system is supposed to track foreign students and close the loopholes in student visa procedure.
Schools now must report detailed information about their foreign students. The required information includes academic, personal and financial data about the students and their dependents, any disciplinary action, off-campus employment and whether they are studying full time.
“Up until now, there has never been a real system to track foreign students. They only have to register with the INS once to get the I-20.” said Peter Pachter, Director of Overseas Students at American Language Communication Center, a language school in midtown. “There were rules and regulations that students had to comply with but the INS never seemed to follow through with the enforcement.”
In 1996 Congress passed the law establishing the INS-run Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students. But the electronic monitoring system never took off because of a lack of funding.
INS spokesperson Chris Bentley has said that immigration officials historically have not scrutinized students too closely. It became an opportunity for fraud. Larry Weing, a New York immigrant inspector in the 1970s, told the Washington Post that “there were schools that were I-20 millsâ€¦ Students were coming in on student visas to work rather than go to school.”
But all that changed after the September 11 terrorist attacks. One of the hijackers entered the country on a student visa. Other two came in as tourists and were requesting to adjust their status to students. In one of the major blunders in its history, the INS approved their application six months after their death.
Although SEVIS would help reduce fraud cases like Supaluk’s, many believed that it created an additional burden on foreign students who do come here to study. “People make mistakes entering data and sometimes a system can crash,” said Joana Petrova, a student from Bulgaria. ”These mistakes determine if a student has the right to remain in or return to the United States.”
New York City colleges and universities have the largest number of international students, more than 15,000, according to the INS.
“We are moving from a climate of a benign attitude toward minor violations of status, such as dropping to 11 credits or failing to renew documents in a timely fashion, to one of rigorous enforcement of the letter of the law and swift and harsh penalties,” said Gail Szenes, Director Office for International Students and Scholars at New York University.
Some foreign students said they “understand why America has to do this” but pointed out that students are not the only ones who enter this country.
“Keeping detailed information on students doesn't address the fact that 7 million people from other countries enter the United States each year, whereas 600,000 individuals are studying here at any one time,’ Szences said.
Critics also argued that SEVIS will not help in fighting terrorism and questioned if the costs and time spent on the system will be worth it.
“The system was very slow in the beginning,” Pachter said. “We had to add an additional staff member to deal with SEVIS.”
Implementing SEVIS has been a tremendous burden and cost for NYU. “We had to purchase new hardware and software, and dedicate many staff to work exclusively for the last six months to get new systems in place,” said Szences. “I do not believe that knowing when a student drops from 12 to 11 credits is going to help fight terrorism.”
An immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand, Chaleampon Ritthichai is the editor of The Citizen.