This posting is a deviation from study abroad program that depart from the United States. Today, as I’m writing from the NAFSA conference, I am reporting on a tool called SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System), the US government’s web based technology that is used to track visiting students and their dependents while in the US for their studies. This posting will give you an idea of complex the process can be to bring a student or scholar into the US, which will make many of you feel a bit better about the hoops that you may need to jump through to obtain a visa to travel or study outside the US!
For some time now, we have heard about upcoming deployment of “SEVIS II”, so today I listened in at the NAFSA Bi-regional conference about the changes to the system. The deployment will take place in two phases, however both are behind track. Phase One – Initial Operating Capability (IOC) is now expected to take place in Spring 2010, although one presenter commented that she believes it may be unlikely to reach the February 2010 target date. Phase Two – Full Operating Capability (FOC) is expected to take place at least 6 months after Phase One deployment.
The goal of SEVIS II is to have only one ID number for each visitor to the US. Currently in SEVIS, a student can have multiple SEVIS numbers. SEVIS II will instead have an IIN (Immigration Identification Number) and anyone in the world can apply for an IIN number. The new system is also intended to create a paperless process, so Designated School Officials (DSOs) will not have to print multiple I-20s for students. (An I-20 is a goverment document that is issued by a school or university which is to be presented by a student at a US embassy/consulate when he/she applies for an F1 student visa.) A printed I-20 will be needed for certain circumstances in the US, such as requesting a license at the local DMV. SEVP is calling this the “domestic I-20.”
Students will also have the ability to enter limited data into the system, which is somewhat controversial. While it increases the student’s accountability, it does raise concerns in terms of accuracy and consistency of their legal names. SEVIS II does include a data field for “nickname”. However, the expected search engine will identify names by date of birth and school. One can only imagine how many common names there will be across the system and publicly sharing the date of birth is of great concern to us because of FERPA. USCIS‘s response to this concern is that the Consular Office and SEVP can change the name in SEVIS II if it does not match the passport name.
We are also being told that future Optional Practical Training (OPT) requests will be routed electronically through SEVIS II; if true this will save an awful lot of trees!
When the site eventually goes live, and when that will REALLY be is anyone’s guess, there will be a significant training rolled out. A SEVIS II group has even been set up on yahoo groups to keep those who are interested informed about issues and progress in development. To register for this free group, join at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/sevisii
My opinion of SEVIS II is that the features that will allow it to function in a nearly paperless environment will be of great value in terms of efficiency and the environment. While I do have concerns about the student entering data into the system, I am reserving judgment about the overall upgrade to the system until it is officially rolled out. Having been a DSO in the early/mid 1990s at New York University, pre-SEVIS, the work was done manually. Faxes and paperwork were flying everywhere and the process was not at all efficient when compared to the benefit of the SEVIS technology. Returning to foreign student advising in 2008, I was concerned about the SEVIS reporting requirements, based on heresay from colleagues in the field. The reality is that SEVIS is relatively easy to work with and the customer service staff is generally very knowledgable and helpful, particularly when you have a small international student population. The challenges with SEVIS have been more with the interface with other databases, occasionally tying up a student in the bureaucracy for months at a time, although thankfully I have found this to be rare. SEVIS II will require us to change how we handle our work for international students. Change can be difficult; human nature is to resist it. So I will hold back until I see how the system works “live”, and at the rate that the project teams at USCIS are moving, it could easily be another 12 – 18 months before that happens.