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Monitoring Foreign Students in the United States: The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)

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Publication Date: January 2005

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL32188

Topic: Education (Study abroad)


There has been increased interest in monitoring foreign students while maintaining the long tradition of permitting international scholars to study in the United States. There are three main avenues for students from other countries to temporarily come to the United States to study, and each involves admission as a nonimmigrant. The three visa categories used by foreign students are: F visas for academic study; M visas for vocational study; and J visas for cultural exchange. Recently, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented an electronic foreign student monitoring system.

When Congress enacted the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996, it added statutory language mandating that the Attorney General, in consultation with the Secretaries of State and Education, develop by January 1, 1998, a program to collect data on foreign students from at least five countries, and mandated that by 2003, the data collection include all countries. IIRIRA required the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to collect the information electronically "where practical." The USA Patriot Act of 2001 included provisions to expand the foreign student tracking system and authorized appropriations for the system, which was supposed to be funded through fees, paid by the students. The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 increased monitoring of foreign students and closed perceived loopholes.

The foreign student monitoring system created by the former INS, and mandated in IIRIRA, is referred to as the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). SEVIS, which automated an existing manual data collection process, became operational for all incoming students on February 15, 2003, the deadline for all institutions which had previously been approved to admit foreign students to apply for SEVIS certification and enter all new students into the SEVIS system. The educational institutions were given until August 1, 2003 to enter all continuing students into the system, and to have their SEVIS certification completed. There have been few stories in the press of foreign students having problems entering the United States as a result of the implementation of SEVIS. Nonetheless, schools have reported technical difficulties operating SEVIS, and reported discrepancies between information received from different bureaus in DHS regarding SEVIS operations and requirements. In addition, some have concerns that it may be difficult for foreign students to pay the fee in the manner outlined in regulations, while others contend that the fee payment rules will not be a burden on students as most have already made similar types of payments to apply to schools. Additionally, some have noted delays in student visa processing. Prior to the implementation of SEVIS it was difficult to know when foreign students overstayed their visas. Through SEVIS, DHS should be able to identify students who have violated the terms of their visas; however, some question whether DHS has the staff to locate all student visa violators, and whether it is a beneficial use of DHS resources to do so. Others are concerned that clerical errors will lead to unwarranted enforcement actions. This report will be updated as needed.