Student Visas

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					                                   Issue Brief
                              Student Visas/SEVIS
                                      June 2006


The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) is a networked computer
system set up in the United States to track information on non-immigrant international
and foreign exchange students attending school in the U.S. The SEVIS system requires
schools to maintain attendance records for foreign students.

The system was set up to make it more difficult for terrorists and other illegal immigrants
to use the student visa system to enter the country. The purpose of SEVIS is to enable
schools and exchange programs to transmit electronic information and event
notifications, via the Internet, to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the
Department of State throughout the student’s or exchange visitor’s stay in the United
States. The goal of SEVIS is to provide a proper balance between openness to
international students and exchange visitors and U.S. security interests in knowing who
has come into the country and that they are complying with the terms of their entry.


While SEVIS was set up in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks, its existence
was mandated by a law passed in 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant
Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). After the 1993 bombing at the Word Trade Center, it was
found that one of the convicted bombers had entered the U.S. on a student visa. After
three semesters, he had dropped out of school and joined a group of Islamic terrorists.
Congress reacted to this by including within IIRIRA a mandate that required the U.S.
government to create a computerized foreign student management system by January 1st,
2003. SEVIS implements section 641 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant
Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996.

Between 1996 and 2001 there were delays and debates regarding the implementation of
SEVIS, then called the Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International
Students (CIPRIS). Many in the academic community (and especially those on campus
who handle international student administrative issues) voiced opposition to the proposed
system of collection of fees from the students to fund the system. After 9/11, and the
revelation that that one of the hijackers had entered the country on a student visa, formal
opposition ceased and Congress quickened the pace on the system being put into place by
the Immigration and Naturalization Service. New rules put into place in 2002 also
mandated that SEVIS incorporate additional reporting requirements imposed by the USA
PATRIOT Act of 2001 and the Enhanced Border Security Act of 2002.

The mandatory compliance date for all authorized schools to utilize SEVIS was January
30, 2003. After January 30, all schools had to issue SEVIS-generated I-20 forms to all
new students. All schools sponsoring foreign students had to apply for and receive
certification from DHS to participate in the SEVIS system. By August 1, 2003, schools
had to enter all current non-immigrant students into SEVIS and report their enrollment.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks against the U.S. on September 11th, 2001, the
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was formed to act as a supervisory umbrella
organization for many federal agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization
Service (INS). The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement took over many
functions of the INS as of March 1, 2003, including maintaining the Student and
Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) and the special registration databases.


Declining Enrollments

Policies implemented to keep our country safe in the wake of September 11 have had the
unintended consequence of dramatically reducing the number of international students
studying in the United States. Total international applications to U.S. graduate schools
fell 28 percent from fall 2003 to fall 2004, and 54 percent of all English as a Second
Language (ESL) programs have reported declines in overall applications at a time where
countries such as the U.K., Canada, and Australia are experiencing increases.


The 1996 law (IIRIRA) that mandated the establishment of SEVIS also required the
program be funded through the payment of fees. The implementation of a $100 fee for
international students, exchange visitors and scholars attending school or conducting
research in the United States took effect September 1, 2004. Students, scholars and
exchange visitors from abroad whose schools or programs are approved in SEVIS are
required to pay the appropriate fee – in most cases, $100 -- prior to obtaining their visas,
making the program fee based.

The purpose of the fee is to cover the costs for the continued operation of the Student
Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), including the administration and maintenance of
SEVIS. The fee applies to F, J and M nonimmigrant classifications; however, participants
in certain J-1 exchange visitor programs will pay a reduced fee of $35 or be fee-exempt.
The fee will also fund the establishment of a cadre of liaison officers to help school
administrators and students use SEVIS more effectively.

The student visa fee was one of the primary reasons those in international education
opposed the original CIPRIS system, and is still an area of concern, especially for those
involved in short-term programs, like intensive English programs (IEPs). For students
coming to the U.S. for long-term undergraduate or graduate work, the $100 fee may not
be particularly significant. However, for those students who wish to study in the U.S. on

a short-term basis, such as in a 6-8 language program, the $100 fee could be an extra

Congressional action

These issues have not been lost on Members of Congress. On February 17, 2005, Senator
Norm Coleman (R-MN) introduced a bill with Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) called the
American Competitiveness through International Openness Now (ACTION) Act. The
purpose of the bill is to reverse the decline in the number of international students
studying at American colleges, universities, and high schools. The bill was referred to
the Foreign Relations Committee, and no action has yet to be been taken. Most recently,
however, Senator Coleman took the opportunity to weigh in on the immigration debate
which gripped the Senate for several weeks this spring by introducing an amendment to
Senate immigration legislation (S. 2611, Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of
2006) that would assist IEP programs. The amendment, while not as comprehensive as
the ACTION Act, would have improved access to visas for students in intensive English
programs and close visa-related loopholes essential to our nation's security. Specifically
the amendment would reduce the SEVIS fee for IEP students, require intensive English
programs to be accredited, and give consular officials greater discretion in allowing
individuals in short term courses (such as those at IEPS) to enter the US on tourist visas.
Unfortunately, due to parliamentary technicalities, the amendment was not included in
the Senate’s final bill, but the profile of the issues facing intensive English programs, as
well as other institutions of higher education who are trying to attract foreign students,
was raised in the Senate.

Visa policies

Along with the implementation of SEVIS and student visa fees, new policies from the
Department of State since 2001 have also served as possible deterrents for international
students. These include more comprehensive scrutiny of visa applications by U.S. State
Department consular offices, and the requirement of in-person interviews for all visa

Related to these new policies have been reports that they have been inconsistently applied
among U.S. consular offices, especially in the first years after the attacks of September
11, 2001. This has been especially the case for IEPs, some of whom have reported that
visas were being denied to perspective students on the basis that English language study
was not a valid reason for obtaining a student visa.

Similarly, delays in the processing for student visas increased dramatically in the period
right after September 11th, with students waiting several weeks or more for approval.
While the turnaround time has been greatly improved over the past two years, this
likewise has had a significant impact upon short-term programs such as IEPs.

Competition from other countries

The combination of the above factors has created the perception that the U.S., once the
global leader in international education, is no longer a welcoming place for international
students. With the additional fees and procedures now needed to obtain a student visa,
many students have looked to other countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand,
and the United Kingdom. Likewise, national efforts from these countries in appealing to
international students have significantly cut into the market share the U.S. had in terms of
international student recruitment.

Information provided courtesy of Washington Partners, LLC.


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