SEVIS Fee-Collection System Flawed, Higher Education Groups Say
By Kristina LaneThe way the U.S. government wants to collect fees from international students for a foreign-student tracking system is flawed and could hinder foreign-student enrollment at American colleges and universities, according to a coalition of higher education groups.
Last month the American Council on Education and 21 other higher education groups sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, suggesting changes to the department’s proposed plan for collecting fees for the electronic tracking system, known as the Student Exchange and Visitor Information System, or SEVIS.
A rule posted in the Federal Register on Oct. 27, 2003, said students interested in obtaining F (student), M (vocational) or J (exchange) visas to study in the United States would have to pay the SEVIS fee before applying for the visa. The $100 fee would have to be paid in American dollars by mail with a check or money order, or with a credit card online. After processing the fee, the DHS would send a receipt to the student by mail or online, and the student would have to present a hard copy of the receipt when he or she applied for a visa.
But the higher education groups raised several objections.
The provision asking students to pay the fee before applying for a visa is especially cumbersome, they said, because it’s not something required by current law. “This provision … will only exacerbate the administrative complexities facing individuals who seek to study or conduct research in the United States,” according to the letter.
Lance Pressl, a senior associate for government relations at ACE, said the current law requires that the SEVIS fee be paid before the visa is granted — not before the application process begins. If a visa is not approved, Pressl said, the student wouldn’t be refunded the application fee.
Mailing a receipt to an applicant would be too time-consuming and result in delays “to an already lengthy visa application and review process,” the letter says.
The groups objected also to the idea of there being any paper involved in the process at all, because SEVIS was supposed to be an all-electronic system to sharpen the security of the visa process. “The proposed rule will, ironically, decrease the security of SEVIS. Paper receipts can be lost or stolen,” the letter says.
To avoid some of these problems, the groups offer several suggestions. Student-visa applicants should be allowed to pay the SEVIS fee in their local currencies when they are applying for the visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate or as they are entering the United States, according to the letter.
Pressl said such alternatives wouldn’t deter foreign students from pursuing studies in America — something many in higher education are worried about.
“I think that’s one of our most serious concerns, that this (the proposed rule) will add additional burdens to students who wish to come to the U.S. but have other options in other countries. The higher education community feels that international students contribute so much … but that the burdens we are creating are too great for them,” Pressl said. “We support the enhancements to national security. But asking the students to pay the fee prior to the (visa) application, we believe, is just unnecessary and doesn’t enhance national security.”
According to “Open Doors 2003,” an annual survey of international education, foreign-student enrollment at all higher education institutions in the United States rose by less than 1 percent in 2002-2003, to 586,323 students. The number of international students enrolled at community colleges dropped 2 percent in 2002-2003 to 96,785, the first decrease since the 1995-1996 school year.
Eugenio Barrios, director of enrollment management at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York, said he agreed that the rules suggested by the government would add an unnecessary layer of red tape to the visa process.
“The more demanding it gets, with more layers, the more complicated it gets for the individual seeking access. So yes, we do foresee that it’s going to create some problems,” Barrios said.
He also said BMCC employees have spent hundreds of hours bringing the school and its foreign students into compliance with SEVIS requirements, with many employees staying until 10 or 11 p.m. during the week and sometimes working weekends. About 19,000 students are enrolled at BMCC, of which 1,450 are international students, Barrios said.
“With regard to 9/11 and the need for reforms, we understand the need for certain systems to be in place, there’s no question about that. But it’s a system that has not been tested fully,” he said.
Pressl said there has been no response from the government.
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