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New System for Tracking Students Only Months Away From INS Use

By Cheryl W. Thompson

A new system that will allow the Immigration and Naturalization Service to track approximately 1 million foreign students will be up and running in the next several months, Justice Department sources said Thursday.

The start-up of the Internet-based system, after years of criticism from lawmakers of the INS’s antiquated tracking methods, is seen by officials as a significant step toward monitoring foreign students and beefing up the country’s anti-terror safeguards. The system is scheduled to be operational by July 1.

The INS was “supposed to keep up with (students), and obviously the schools were not cooperating. But the bulk of the problem was the system itself was antiquated,” a Justice Department official said Thursday. “You can’t push a million students through a paper system and expect to get accuracy.”

The system is designed to provide up-to-date information on non-immigrant foreign students, such as name changes and new dropouts, an official said. Each school will have 24 hours to input changes.

Schools now maintain paper records on foreign students; the records are not kept in a central location and are not provided to the INS unless the agency requests them.

“It is the single best step the federal government can take to keep closer tabs on international students studying in the United States,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents 1,800 public and private colleges and universities.

A 1996 immigration reform law required the INS to upgrade the system by which it keeps track of the 1 million foreign students studying in the United States at any time. The system must be in place by January.

Pressure to get the system up and running has increased since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Hani Hanjour, one of the 19 hijackers, used a student visa to enter the United States.