Faced with a quagmire of stricter federal immigration laws and procedures whose enforcement began this year, offices that serve Johns Hopkins' international population have had to adapt by taking on a more proactive and policing-type role when dealing with the university's more than 5,000 visiting students, faculty and other scholars.
In particular, these offices and their constituents have been impacted by the new Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, a rigid tracking system launched earlier this year, and by various Homeland security measures that have in some cases considerably slowed down the processing times for visas.
According to Murray Welsh, director of JHMI's Office of International Student, Faculty and Staff Services, in a post-Sept. 11 world, and with the nation currently at war, the university's international population needs to prepare for an indefinite period of more vigilant tracking and security checking measures.
"These are very serious issues we face," Welsh said. "Needless to say, it's been a challenging year for us so far."
SEVIS, an online database in which all U.S. colleges and universities needed to participate by Feb. 15, requires additional and more timely reporting on the part of the host institution. The information stored on the system must reflect the current status and biographical data pertaining to any international visitor present in the United States in F and J visa status. If there is a discrepancy, or if the person does not report to school by the assigned time, an automatic alert will go out to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly Immigration and Naturalization Services. In the case of a student, for example, information recorded on SEVIS includes school affiliation, major field of study, address, contact information, marital status and other such details.
By Aug. 1, a deadline imposed by the federal government, all information related to current F and J international visitors, and to those issued F and J visa stamps but not yet in country, must be entered into SEVIS. The goal is to have 100 percent of a school's international student and exchange visitor population on the system.
Welsh said that while tracking students is nothing new, having to report any changes in status or personal information before they actually occur is.
"We can't stress enough the importance for our students and visitors to make sure that the international office on their campus has their updated information at all times," she said. "For instance, if someone is planning to change departments or home address, don't do it and then come tell us, because we have no way of fixing anything retroactively anymore."
She said that in the "old system" changes were done by paper, and the government was more lenient in allowing late corrections to be made to legitimate records.
"But that flexibility is not built into this database," she said. "Even if the changes are minor, say a new telephone number, it's safer to see the international office than risk making a wrong assumption and end up in trouble as a result."
One way SEVIS works is that when an international visitor leaves or enters the country, his information can be verified with what is currently on the system. When the details given a Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services agent do not match those on SEVIS, the individual can be detained or, in a worst-case scenario, deported.
Some visitors are also subject to "call ins," in which they are required to report periodically to a Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services office, where they are fingerprinted and advised of any new requirements, such as what airports can be used in the event they travel.
Since late 2002, the various international student/staff offices have conducted a full-scale information campaign concerning the new immigration laws and procedures, hosting various training sessions, workshops and presentations. Recently, broadcast e-mails were sent out reminding internationals of delays in processing times and of SEVIS compliance, including the upcoming Aug. 1 deadline.
Noppadon Moapichai, assistant director of the Office of International Student and Scholar Services at Homewood, said that while those in his office view themselves as advocates first and foremost, the new laws require more policing on their part.
"There is a new dynamic here. We have to be rigorous monitors," he said, adding that with little margin for error, international office staff are put in a need-to-know position.
Moapichai said another major concern facing the university's international visitor population is the issuing of visas. Since the enactment of the Patriot Act late last year, those seeking to study in the United States now undergo more thorough security checks and are subject to potentially longer processing time.
Welsh said her office has already noticed delays, and she expects "it's going to get worse before it gets any better.
"Consulates are on a heightened state of alert; they have been since Sept. 11," she said. "And now that we are in a state of war, we are seeing more individuals delayed for what we call administrative processing. The consulates will not release the visa stamp until Washington, D.C., has cleared that person. They want to know is this person OK, is this field of study OK, is this lab OK? We are notifying all those who apply here to anticipate some delay."
She said those who face the longest delays tend to be individuals from countries with "terrorist ties" and those whose area of study is on the U.S. government's technology alert list. Included on this list are the fields of nuclear, chemical and biomedical engineering; biotechnology; and advanced computing study, among others.
Welsh said that in some cases visa approval can now take as long as six months, and the delays have been seen across the board. In one recent case, two students accepted to the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences had to defer a whole semester due to processing delays.
"The bottom line is, you have a consulate's officer who may not know what a particular field is. Maybe the consular officer was an anthropology major, and maybe he has an applicant who wants to study molecular biology," she said. "The officer would rather be safe than sorry."
Janice Shannon, international student adviser at Peabody, said the steep learning curve and technical gremlins associated with SEVIS have been further complicating duties for many of her colleagues. Shannon said she encountered many connection problems the first two months after the SEVIS's implementation, instances where she couldn't logon to the system or instructions on a procedure were unavailable.
"They've since taken care of some of these problems, but it certainly seems to still be a work in progress," she said. "I'm sure once we all get up to speed, SEVIS and some of these other new regulations will improve the transfer of information to immigration services. But getting through this first year certainly promises to be a challenge."