Lansing: Border Crossing Lax for Students

U.S.: Border Crossing Lax for Students

Customs officials lack access to vital information system

The State News (Michigan State University)
MSU’s Independent Voice
Friday, April 16, 2004

By Emily Bingham ([email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>)

Customs officers are not checking the federal Internet database of
information about international students as often as they should,
government officials said Wednesday.

According to a report released by The Chronicle of Higher Education,
officials have confirmed that the initial customs officers who check
foreign students at border crossings, seaports and airports do not have
direct access to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or

In the report, SEVIS director Jill Drury said a secondary line of
customs officers have access to the database, but they only review new
students and those whose information raises suspicion.

In 2001, the USA Patriot Act set aside more than $36 million for SEVIS
and the Student and Exchange Visitor Program to collect and manage
information about international students. The computerized, Web-based
system replaced a manual, paper-driven method of maintaining this
information, which includes addresses, biographical data, areas of study
and social security numbers. The system was implemented in January 2003
after it was determined that one of the hijackers from the Sept. 11
terrorist attacks entered the country on a student visa.

Some university and college officials nationwide are alarmed at the lack
of SEVIS utilization, because many schools spent time and money
providing information for the system.

“We had heard that some ports of entry didn’t have access to it,” said
Rosemary Max, assistant director for MSU’s Office of International
Students and Scholars. “But we hadn’t heard anything that was as
comprehensive as this.”

Max said that while she wasn’t too worried about time spent supplying
information, she was somewhat concerned about the safety implications of
not using the database.

“It’s a little bit anti-logical, because they put the system in to make
us more secure, supposedly,” she said. “If they’re not able to get the
real-time information they need when that person enters, then I don’t
see what the point is.”

Drury said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security hadn’t reached its
goal of allowing SEVIS access for the first line of customs officers,
and added that she did not know how long it would be until the system
was completely implemented.

Officials from the Department of Homeland Security could not be reached

At MSU, some international students said their experiences with SEVIS
have led them to question the system’s usefulness.

Grigor Sargsyan, an economics graduate student, came to campus from
Armenia one year before SEVIS was put into place. Once the system was
implemented, Sargsyan said he had to give the government as much
information as possible, which caused him to worry about his return to
MSU after visiting home for the summer.

“I was really afraid I would have problems,” he said. “What was really
to my surprise was that I didn’t have any problems at all.

“It seemed like they didn’t even use that information.”

Sargsyan said he was surprised when the customs officer at the border
only asked him one question, causing him to wonder whether the “hassle”
of filling out SEVIS documents was really helping homeland security.

“I’m from the economics department, and I look at this from the point of
view of cost and benefit,” he said. “The government spent a huge amount
of money for this and I’m not even sure they’re going to use it for its

“The benefit will be less than the cost, definitely.”