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July 10, 2003

New federal reporting rules create headaches for Pitt’s Office of International Services

Some offices have Casual Fridays. Pitt’s Office of International Services has SEVIS Fridays.

Every Friday since May (except for July 4), with the blessing of the Provost’s office, OIS staff members have hunkered down in their William Pitt Union offices, closing their doors to the rest of the University community.

Throughout July, the OIS’s doors will be closed on Thursdays, too.

It’s all so OIS staff can devote entire work days — not just hours when they aren’t busy counseling foreign students, among their other regular duties — making sure that Pitt will meet the Aug. 1 deadline for complying with the federal government’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System.

The stakes are high: Any U.S. school that misses the deadline risks losing its approval to receive non-immigrant foreign students and visiting scholars for at least one year.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service created SEVIS last winter. The Internet-based tracking system requires schools and organizations to report information on non-immigrant foreign students and visiting scholars as well as their dependents (i.e., all those in the F or J visa status). SEVIS is intended to track such international visitors from the time they receive their visas until they complete their studies and/or research in the United States.

The Bush administration says SEVIS targets terrorists seeking to infiltrate this country on student visas and is not intended to discourage foreign nationals from studying in the United States.

Critics say the system violates student privacy, that its real purpose is racial and religious profiling, and that it perverts the role of American universities from being advocates of international scholarship to informants.

SEVIS routinely loses sensitive information about international students and faculty, according to the Chicago Tribune. “On many campuses, universities trying to print documents through the SEVIS program have had those sensitive papers appear on printers at other campuses thousands of miles away,” reported the web site of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO).

Some of Pitt’s early SEVIS data showed up at other universities but the problem has been corrected, according to OIS director David Bryan Clubb.

So far, he says, Pitt has been spared crises such as the one involving a student from Thailand attending Southeastern University in Washington, D.C., who was arrested by federal agents after the SEVIS database incorrectly listed her as having dropped out. In another instance, AACRAO reported a Belgian psychologist headed to Michigan State University on a postdoctoral fellowship had his passport taken by the U.S. consulate in Brussels when officers could not find his records in the SEVIS database.

Pitt’s policy on SEVIS is simple, says Clubb: Like it or not, SEVIS is the law.

Clubb says that whenever he starts to feel guilty about curtailing OIS customer services in order to process SEVIS data, he reminds himself: “If we don’t do this, they [foreign students and scholars] aren’t going to be here anyway.”

At Pitt, approximately 1,700 foreign graduate students, 200 undergraduates and 1,000 researchers, scholars and faculty members come under the purview of SEVIS, Clubb says. “That’s not including their dependents. If you add dependents, the number is easily 10,000 or more individuals.”

OIS’s nine professionals and five support staff members must manually collect up-to-date information for each of those individuals (documenting what they’re doing here, how long they will be staying, etc.), check each document for accuracy and send this data in a nightly, batch file to the federal government.

As of last week, OIS determined, only about 150 Pitt international students and scholars and their dependents remained to be entered into SEVIS — a number that puts the University well on track for meeting the Aug. 1 deadline, according to Clubb.

“Our biggest challenge inputting these records in SEVIS is getting the internationals to provide us with the updated demographical and biographical information we need,” Clubb says. “In many cases, we have had to send three or more e-mails, call them, call their department and otherwise take extraordinary steps to get them to comply with our request for information.

“Internationals need to understand that OIS is trying to help them, and if they fail to respond to our requests or do not provide us with up-to-date contact information, they are going to risk becoming illegal in the United States.”

Pitt was ahead of the game in complying with SEVIS, Clubb says. “We were lucky. Vice Provost [Robert] Pack had authorized us to purchase a new, web-based database system that’s very sophisticated. We had it up and running in January. Pitt was one of the first schools to begin batching data to SEVIS.

“A lot of schools weren’t prepared for SEVIS and won’t make the Aug. 1 deadline,” Clubb predicts. “Some of them probably will be big-name schools.”

Despite being prepared for it, the compliance process has taken its toll on OIS personnel.

“Some weeks, we’ve been putting in 60, 70, even 80 hours,” Clubb says. Staff are forbidden to take off more than one Friday this summer. Nearly all are foregoing vacations until after Aug. 1.

“I worked about 11 hours every day last week,” recalls Kari Gazdich, an adviser to foreign students and scholars who came to OIS from Point Park College six months ago. “This [SEVIS] stuff is so detail-oriented that, if you take a break in the middle of processing something, it’s really hard to pick up where you left off. So, you tend to work straight through lunch to avoid losing momentum.

“My voice mail gets filled up every single day. I have close to 200 e-mails in my in-box that I haven’t had a chance to respond to.”

One day recently, some 125 foreign students and scholars visited OIS to pick up, drop off or seek clarification about SEVIS documents.

Leslie Ann Smedley has worked in OIS since 1982, and says the office’s paperwork has increased “astronomically” in the last year. “It’s really affected the quality of life in the profession, not just at Pitt,” she says.

Like Gazdich, Smedley regrets that she has little time these days to advise students. “When I say ‘advising,’ I mean time to sit down with clients, time to get to know them, time to see them as human beings.”

SEVIS pressures convinced one OIS staffer to resign, Gazdich notes. “She said to me, ‘Kari, my children have had McDonald’s for dinner four times this week because I get home at 7 o’clock every night and I’m too exhausted to cook.’”

While OIS staff risk SEVIS burnout, the swelling number of federal regulations aimed at weeding out terrorists may be endangering the academic and family lives of some international students and scholars.

“I had a girl in here today who’s doing post-doctoral research at Pitt,” says Gazdich, “and she hasn’t been home to see her family in three years. She wants to go home for the summer. But she’s from Indonesia” — one of the predominantly Muslim countries where U.S. consuls are less inclined to grant and renew travel visas.

“This student’s concern was that she would go home and would be denied a visa to return and finish her research at Pitt,” Gazdich says. “And I had to tell her: ‘Yes, it’s very likely that would happen.’”

In March, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service was effectively dissolved and its functions reassigned to two bureaus within the Department of Homeland Security. The new bureaus are empowered to reverse visa approvals by State Department consular officers.

“In the past,” notes Clubb, “consular officers had wide authority to waive the requirement that every single person applying for a visa had to be interviewed in person. That has changed.” Now, nearly all applicants for U.S. travel visas must undergo in-person interviews as part of anti-terrorism screenings.

“The concern is that this mandate will keep a lot of students and scholars from getting here to the United States for this fall,” Clubb says. “There are reports in London and other places of 4-6 week waits just to get an interview.”

Under pressure from higher education advocates, the U.S. Department of State instructed its overseas consular offices to “give priority to students and exchange visitors in the professor, student and research-scholar categories” in scheduling interviews with visa applicants.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, OIS has been assembling a chart that lists — line by line — legislative and executive-level changes requiring OIS to change its practices.

“We’re up to 31 lines now,” Clubb says, “and counting.”

— Bruce Steele

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