Keeping Tabs

UA's SEVIS program takes a 'Big Brother' approach to tracking foreign students.

Lurking UA Police cruisers have become fixtures around the Islamic Center of Tucson, and with good reason: According to Imam Omar Shahin, youngsters attending school at this tidy mosque near the university campus have, on occasion, been attacked by morally confused folks hurling a variety of projectiles.

"There was one incident in which a lady started throwing shoes at our children," says Shahin, the center's director. "Can you imagine? Another time, they were throwing stones and bottles."

Since Sept. 11, the UA cops have made a special, praiseworthy effort to protect the mosque and its members from such eclectically armed patriots. But at the same time, in a far more insidious manner, the UA is helping undermine the privacy for students and professors from foreign lands, many of whom belong to the Islamic Center.

Not that the college has a choice. Invasive federal policies are forcing changes in the way the university monitors foreign visitors, who number approximately 4,000. Adding insult, the cash-strapped school is spending big money to keep tabs on these scholars.

The UA is part of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, an unwieldy, Orwellian--and some say unworkable--program in which participating colleges nationwide are required to upload information about their foreign students and teachers into a huge federal database. Schools that shun the system are refused the ability to enroll foreign students.

Under SEVIS, the slightest shift in a visitor's status--if they skip class or change apartments--can receive detailed scrutiny. Critics argue that the database, which has proven to be clunky and prone to glitches, may create roadblocks for innocent students coming here for an education. Due to a technical error, they could be unable to re-enter the country, or be unfairly deported.

Today, Yousif Aljaidah has come to the Islamic Center for afternoon prayers. The UA electrical engineering senior sits in Shahin's office, beneath of poster of the gleaming Muslim holy site of Medinah, and runs small fingers through a thick, black beard. A Qatar native, he says many of his friends haven't left the United States to visit relatives back home, out of fear that they'd be unable to return to school. But he adds that "people I talk to don't think there is any problem with providing this information if it helps increase security."

From behind his desk, Shahin leans forward. "Any Muslims or Arabs, they have no problem with this," the Imam says, "because they have nothing to hide. They are very decent, innocent students, and came here just to learn."

Meanwhile, the UA itself has been on a learning curve just to get the system up and running. The cumbersome program is to be in place at all schools by August. And despite a litany of complaints by school administrators, federal officials say SEVIS is coming along nicely. Speaking to reporters earlier this month, Johnny Williams, acting director of investigations at the new U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that 300,000 foreign students nationwide have already been registered in the SEVIS system, and that another 1.2 million would be included by the August deadline set by Congress.

But others, speaking to a House Judiciary subcommittee earlier this month, faulted the SEVIS system for being overly slow and technically flawed. "Some (U.S.) embassies and consulates find that it takes a week or longer for them to access data entered in SEVIS," said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education. "This means that students arrive at an embassy--sometimes after traveling a great distance--only to be told, incorrectly, that their data have not been entered into SEVIS and that they may not apply for a visa. ... These delays cause confusion and frustration for embassies, students and schools."

At the UA, Kirk Simmons, executive director of International Affairs, says that "to date (SEVIS) has been a relative failure." For example, he says "in one day alone, Michigan State University had received all of the University of Arizona records into their system. That's the kind of thing that's happening. The preparation for this (by the federal government) has been very shoddy."

Failure or not, funding the SEVIS program "hasn't been pleasant," Simmons says. "All the new infrastructure (that SEVIS) required at the university, which included over $100,000 in new computer hardware and software, and an additional $100,000 to $200,000 in staffing--we had to come up with this money internally at the university, at a time when our budget has just been cut 12 percent. So you can imagine the financial burden."

At the same time, "the international students and faculty feel they're undergoing undue scrutiny with the implementation of this automation," Simmons says. "The thing that's odd about this is, out of the hundreds of thousands of non-immigrants in the United States, only 2 to 3 percent are international students and faculty. That's the population the government is focusing on, and they're disregarding 90-some percent of non-immigrants who come into the country, and are in the country, in any one year.

"How is that in any way, shape or form addressing terrorism, when you're only targeting this tiny piece of the population of non-immigrants?" he asks. "It's great politics, but it's not good policy."

Back at Islamic Center, Imam Shahin praises the UA for its efforts to protect foreign students and teachers, but cautions that growing federal invasions of privacy--such as SEVIS--could be disastrous if misused. He says this is something people from more repressive nations, such as his native Jordan, know only too well.

"Many people did not come to this country just for good jobs," he says. "They came here because America is a country with the two noble ideals of freedom and justice. If Americans stop enjoying that freedom, it is the beginning of the end of that freedom."