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Major Changes Ahead for Student Visa Programs

Major Changes Ahead for Student Visa Programs
Senate bill requires government, higher education to work together
By Charles Dervarics

The U.S. Senate in mid-April approved a bill with major changes in store for the way the federal government and higher education will manage student visa programs.
Under the bill with bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats, colleges and universities and the Justice Department would work more closely to exchange information about foreign students’ date and port of entry, date of school enrollment, degree program and date at which a student graduates or drops out of school. The current system lacks such requirements, says Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a co-sponsor of the legislation called the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act.
Specifically, the Justice Department would inform schools about a student’s date of entry into the United States, while schools must inform the Immigration and Naturalization Service if students fail to show up at school within 30 days of the beginning of the academic term.
“Sept. 11 clearly pointed out the shortcomings of our immigrant and visa system,” says Feinstein. “It is unconscionable that a terrorist might be permitted to enter the United States simply because our government agencies don’t share information.”
Three of the Sept. 11 hijackers were in the United States on student visas before the terrorist attack. The student visa system also faced harsh criticism after a Florida flight school received notice of a visa approval six months after the hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.
The bill, S. 1749, has 61 Senate co-sponsors. Chief sponsors of the bill include Feinstein, as well as Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan. The House of Representatives passed a similar bill late last year.
Under the legislation, the federal government also would gain stronger oversight of higher education practices regarding foreign students. For example, the INS and the State Department would monitor various steps involved in the admissions process, while the INS would have to conduct periodic reviews of colleges to monitor their compliance and record-keeping practices. The Senate-passed bill would require reviews every two years.
“There are sporadic inspections of universities,” Kennedy says. Yet, the system has major gaps in information. “We do not know when the individual comes in, once they get by the port of entry, whether they ever go to the college, whether they ever attend for any period of time or, quite frankly, whether they graduate, which is an enormous loophole. That has to change.”
Colleges could face stiff sanctions for failure to comply with requirements, the bill states. Current law allows for such reviews, but they are not done on a consistent basis, Feinstein says. Moreover, she adds, some schools have not been diligent in their reporting and record-keeping responsibilities.
Foreign students generate about $9 billion to $13 billion for the U.S. economy annually, senators say.
Negotiators from the Senate now must meet with counterparts from the House of Representatives to resolve minor differences between competing bills and produce an agreement to send to the White House.
In related action on student visas, the INS in mid-April announced a new policy on the treatment of foreign tourists who then decide to enroll in college. Under the change, visitors with tourist visas must change their status to a student visa before they can enroll in school. The American Council on Education, the chief advocate for higher education in the nation’s capital, says it endorsed the INS move. 

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