Colleges Help U.S. Keep Tabs on Foreign Students

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Some certified schools across the nation began helping the U.S. government track international students last week by releasing student information to the Immigration and Naturalization Service via an electronic database.

The computer program, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, allows schools across the United States to transmit information about international students to the INS and the Department of State.

Congress passed the computer program in the late 1990s, but intense lobbying for international student privacy stalled the program's implementation.

For now, the electronic database includes mainly small schools that volunteer to disclose student information. It contains the date an individual student enters and exits a school, and the student's major.

In the future, the database may also include international student course schedules, and a list of the organizations and clubs to which each student belongs.

All schools will be required to enter international student information into the database by Jan. 30. UC Berkeley plans to enter its international students into the system sometime before the deadline mandated by the INS.

Because 2,500 international students from more than ninety different countries attend UC Berkeley, the university will not enter the students into the program until the system has a "batch capability." The upgrade would allow the system to process large numbers of records at once.

University officials say it will take a lot of work to transfer the student information from paper to electronic form.

"It certainly is creating a lot of work for us, mainly just because it's a huge change in the way things are done," said David Brandt, the international student and scholar advisor at UC Berkeley.

Critics called the new computer system "intrusive" and question its functionality.

"In the end, some of that information really is inappropriate for the government to be collecting," said Bruce Cain, a UC Berkeley political science professor. "We need to find a balance between the important and useful information and the not important information."

Some international students also oppose the construction of the database and say it is a violation of a student's privacy.

"I think that it is very unfair and it goes against the privacy of the person," said Maria, a UC Berkeley international student from Spain who declined to give her last name.

Other students support the program and say that it is a necessary security precaution in light of Sept. 11.

"On the one side, I wouldn't like it at all that someone records what I'm doing here," said Ricarda, a UC Berkeley international student from Germany who also declined to give her last name. "On the other hand, I understand ... perhaps you can prevent some terrorist attacks."

Student records under scrutiny have not been limited to only those of international students. Since Sept. 11, federal agents have been searching student records without notification.

Law enforcement officials have had "virtually unfettered" access to any student records from colleges and universities, Barmak Nassirian, associate executive of the American Association of Collegiate Registrants and Admissions officers, said in October.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union are currently researching the constitutionality of the computer program.


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