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US turns on student watch

Washington, Feb. 17: Mandated after terrorists first bombed the World Trade Center a decade ago, and financed after they destroyed it, a vast new electronic tracking system became the central element on Saturday in the government’s effort to keep tabs on nearly a million foreign students and scholars in the US.

Through the system, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS, schools, colleges and universities will send the federal government lists of the names, addresses, courses and majors of foreign students, as well as information on any disciplinary actions against them.

Institutions that the government has not yet certified to log onto the system may no longer enroll foreign students.

“This is part of a national strategy for the national security of the US — not the end-all and be-all, but a part of that,” said Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalisation Service.

Created after the September 11 attacks brought new scrutiny to foreign students, and a series of blunders exposed an immigration agency in disarray, the system is as much an effort to reassure a skittish public as it is to catch warning signs.

One of the September 11 hijackers entered the US on a student visa, but never turned up for classes. The agency also issued student visas to two of the hijackers six months after they died ramming planes into the trade centre. The tracking system signals a new era for university officials and for students.

For directors of international programs, it means a daunting new role as government watchdogs. They worry that mistakes in advising foreign students or entering data, which might never have been discovered under the oldsystem, could have drastic consequences for students. Given SEVIS’ instant nature, “there’s no room to correct the record for errors,” said Robert J. Locke of the University of North Carolina.

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