International student visas threatened

Portland State faces new challenges in the form of the Interim Student and Exchange Authentication System (ISEAS), which threatens to prevent PSU from enrolling new international students during the winter term.

In response to the attacks of Sept. 11 last year, the Department of Justice and the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) began implementing a new electronic student-tracking program, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). This program would track a range of student activities including enrollment, failure to meet class-load requirements and conviction of a crime. The implementation of this extensive program will begin Jan. 30, 2003.

In order to track students until that date, the INS implemented the authentication system, a temporary program intended to work as a courier of information between universities and consulates.

“Until SEVIS gets running, they wanted some way to authenticate that an I-20 is a legitimate document,” explained Christina Luther, assistant director of International Education Services at PSU. “The I-20 is a document (prospective students) take to the consulate to prove to the embassy that they’ve been accepted to a university.”

The authentication system is a series of Web-based forms that generate the requisite paperwork for authentication. When a student has been accepted to a university, officials enter in their authentication system INS school code and use the Web interface to send verification to the consulate in the student’s home country so that they can issue a visa.

The problem is that PSU’s INS code isn’t recognized by the system, so when PSU officials try to sign into the authentication system, the system thinks they are from Rogue Valley Adventist School in Medford, Ore.

“If the code doesn’t get fixed, it means we won’t be getting any new students in winter,” Luther said.

In order to work around the problem, Luther and her co-workers have been e-mailing confirmations to consulates in order to enable students to get visas, but that practice will have to stop soon.

There was a 30-day grace period during which universities could contact consulates directly.

“The grace period ends tomorrow. As of Monday next week, if that grace period isn’t extended, we’ll have no way of contacting embassies,” Luther said last Thursday.

Monday is a federal holiday and the INS was unavailable for comment.

All this hits PSU especially hard as international studies, especially middle eastern studies, are one of the cornerstones of the institution’s academic repertoire. PSU’s Middle East Studies Center was the first federally supported undergraduate program in the United States for Arabic language and area studies.

Interest from foreign students in studying at PSU hasn’t waned. “Our numbers are up,” said Dawn White, director of International Education Services. Approximately 1,300 international students are currently enrolled at PSU.

Those numbers belie the problems that students had getting visas this year.

“We were told it would take an additional 30 days, sometimes it took up to three months,” Luther said. “A number of students who applied for visas in June are just getting their visas now.”

That was without the authentication system interfering.

“I know there were a number of students who were not able to come because they were in the Middle East and subject to these security checks, or they weren’t in the system and weren’t told they needed to be,” Luther said.

If it wasn’t enough that PSU’s INS code was fumbled, the mandate to input all the current students into the ISEAS program came down a day before it was implemented. On Sept. 10, Luther received an e-mail that said that “as of Sept. 11, this database [the authentication system’s] would be up and running and anyone who was not in the database would not get their visas until they did.”

“We found out on the 10th that we needed to do it by the 11th,” she said. “It was like living a Kafka novel.”

“On Thursday the 12th, we decided to enlist some congressional help,” Luther said. But as of yet, there has been no movement or solution to the problem.