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International student registry deadline arrives

From Jeanne Meserve
CNN Homeland Security Correspondent

Immigration and Customs Bureau officials will be on hand at some of nation's busiest airports to help incoming students.
Immigration and Customs Bureau officials will be on hand at some of nation's busiest airports to help incoming students.

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(CNN) -- Friday marked the deadline for U.S. schools to enter basic information about their international students into a centralized database designed to screen student visa holders at ports of entry before they are let into the country.

Two of the September 11th terrorists entered the United States on student visas, but did not attend school. Under the new Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS, the failure of a visa holder to arrive at school or attend classes would prompt an investigation.

Officials may have been able to deter the two 9/11 hijackers had such a system been in place, said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security in the Department of Homeland Security.

"We would know that they were out of status as students and therefore we would have taken steps to expel them from the country," he said.

As of Tuesday, 5,937 U.S. schools had complied with the August 1 deadline, according to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security report. Nearly 600 schools had yet to file applications or had filed them too late to meet the deadline.

The database's ability to handle the volume of information is uncertain --computer glitches have complicated the process.

"DHS has performed more gender change operations than every doctor in the United States because you enter someone as a male and they print out as a female," said Victor Johnson, executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Schools worry that the system may crash in the next few weeks when 600,000 students come pouring into the United States for the new semester.

The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has set up a 24-hour command center to deal with anticipated problems. Staff will be stationed at major airports to help verify the status of incoming students.

Managing the data may not be the system's only potential shortfall. The Department of Homeland Security admits that it does not currently have the resources to investigate inactive student visa holders or enforce students' expulsion from the country.

"It's going to be a challenge, and we're building that capability," Hutchinson said.

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