New Law Targets International Students

March 13, 2003

David Leiva

Congress may not have had Florence Ciret in mind when they began cracking down on terrorism. Ciret teaches beginning French to undergraduates. She's 5 feet 2 inches tall, with brown, shoulder-length hair. She lugs around a school bag and a violin, a hobby she's just taken up. And she's already spent years working on her PhD in French literature at Tulane. But none of that matters because she was born outside the United States.

If she forgets to inform the Immigration and Naturalization Services within 10 days after she moves to another apartment, she won't have to worry about working on her thesis. She could be deported. Permanently.

"It just seems all so unforgiving," said Ciret, a native of France. Unforgiving? Yes. But it's the new reality of the post-Sept. 11 world.

Ciret and about 1,300 fellow members of the international community at Tulane were updated on this new reality through a series of meetings held last month by the Center for International Students and Scholars.

Bill Lennon, the center's executive director, along with staff members Ronit Weingarden, Jason Keller, Whitney Glover and Orelia Banks are racing against the clock to comply with a new law that requires all colleges and universities to register foreign college visitors through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, an Internet-based database.

Immigration and Naturalization Services, the federal agency tasked with tracking foreign students in the United States, monitors the system. The law became mandatory Feb. 15, and all continuing students are required to be entered by Aug. 1. The new procedures stem from congressional concerns that one of the Sept. 11 terrorists was in the United States on a student visa. According to Lennon, though, the law will do little to safeguard America.

"SEVIS isn't going to do what it's supposed to do," he said. "Only 3 percent of international visitors are students. The other 97 percent--who are mostly tourists--are not being screened." Immigration officials will be able to use the database, which was already readily available, Lennon said. "We've always had it. INS never asked for it," he said. "Our building is sinking over files and info on students."

True, the files have always been there. Now, the questions are more personal, and the consequences more severe. There is zero tolerance. For example, a student can't drop below full time without prior approval. And the center must okay all internships. That's why Lennon and his colleagues held 16 information sessions for students in February, with a goal of having 50 by the summer. They're taking place at night and in the mornings, on weekends and weekdays, uptown and downtown, and at the primate center. Whatever it takes to get the word out.

"We're trying to make it convenient to attend a session," Lennon said. Jason Keller, the international center's assistant director, recently held a meeting in the Boggs Center, where 20 students listened to him stress the major points of the new system. There were few questions afterwards, mostly gloomy looks. "Somber group," he said. "They always are."

Already the Tulane international community has felt the effects of the new system and other new constraints. For instance, one graduate student went home after the winter break and has not been allowed to return. The student was studying chemical engineering. And that major was on the watch list, which means the government probably wants to know more about this person's background, he said.

There are other cases: A faculty member went home to get married in May and needed a new visa to re-enter. He wasn't allowed back into the United States until January, missing the courses he was scheduled to teach in the fall. Lennon expects these situations to become even more common.

"The penalty for a minor mistake is so drastic," Lennon said. "That's the toughest part." Those scenarios have prompted 23 departments on campus to request briefings on the program. This is just the beginning, Lennon said. "Every semester every single person is going to have to be reported."

David Leiva can be reached at

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