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Dear Editor:

I just read the article in ILW.COM about INS scrutiny of foreign students and thought you might be interested in the some background information on the matter. First by way of introduction, I am a tax lawyer and partner in the tax law firm, Vacovec, Mayotte & Singer, Newton, MA. My practice is concentrated in international tax matters for individuals. I am a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). If you go to the tax presentations at the AILA annual meetings, you will have heard me speak on the taxation of foreign nationals.

In addition to practicing law, I am the co-founder of Windstar Technologies, Inc., a software company that develops and distributes immigration and tax products to assist educational institutions in dealing with these matters. (I had a 10-year career as a software designer before becoming a lawyer.) Our immigration product, VisaManagerô and its predecessor products have been used in educational institutions for preparing I-20 and IAP-66 forms and tracking foreign students and scholars since 1985. (The products were originally introduced by Education Catalysts which Windstar bought in 1998.)

Windstar is one of two software companies that provide software to track foreign students and scholars. The other is Newfront Software of Cambridge, MA that has a product, FsaATLAS. These products are installed in 1500 to 2000 educational institutions. VisaManagerô and fsaATLAS are primarily databases that contain student immigration data such as length of study, visa status, expiration of status, financial information, and demographic information. The two products track by our estimates 300,000 of the 550,000 foreign students in the United States. In addition to our products, some institutions have their own internal systems for this process.

After the 1993 World Trade Center bomb attack, INS was criticized for its failure to collect and track data on foreign students. As you point out Congress enacted IIRIRA in 1996 giving the Attorney General a mandate to collect information on non-immigrants in F, J, and M status from educational institutions. This legislation included a provision that INS work with existing software to collect this information. The overall plan was for INS to develop specifications for the transmission of data to INS by the institutions. Then vendors would modify their existing software packages to allow transmission of data. (This is not rocket science.) The program, dubbed CIPRIS, was to be concluded and implemented by the year 2000.

The cost of CIPRIS was huge, prompting INS to introduce a special $99 fee to support the program's costs. This fee was initially to be charged to the schools. The schools and their trade organizations protested vigorously. The fee was then changed to be a fee imposed on the students. The schools protested this as well because it would reduce the foreign student population at a time when competition for these students (and the money that they bring into the economy) was increasing. (See the article "Competition Heats Up in the Global Student Market" in the Summer 2001 issue of the International Educator published by NAFSA: The Association for International Educators.) The administration of the fee as proposed also had some significant problems, not the least of which was requiring pre-payment by check or credit card. Many students have neither capability. In fact many less developed countries have no electronic funds capabilities at all. These were the types of issues being raised by the educational institutions and their organizations such as NAFSA and the Alliance of American Universities.

Needless to say CIPRIS did not meet the year 2000 target. In fact the original CIPRIS program was completely scraped. In March 2001, INS introduced the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) at the Region XI NAFSA Immigration Seminar. INS is jointly developing SEVP with Electronic Data Systems (EDS). We had heard about it through our clients as had Newfront Software. INS/EDS personnel were visiting our clients to determine the processing necessary to issue the forms and track the foreign students. This was a clear violation of the license agreements between the schools and their software vendors, Windstar and Newfront. However, they felt they had to comply with INS' requests although it made them very uncomfortable to do so. These schools are the 12 that are in the IRS pilot program; 8 are Windstar clients. INS/EDS came to the Boston area because they could learn from institutions that had been using immigration software to track foreign students and scholars for years. (It is only coincidental that Boston was also the takeoff point for the hijacked planes.)

CIPRIS in its new iteration, SEVP, is to be much more than a database for allowing INS to track foreign students and scholars. INS/EDS proposes to replace existing software and do all the processing for foreign students and scholars required by the schools. This is driving up the cost of the project considerably and will continue to require on-going funding for customer support of these processes. This is supposed to be "free" to the institutions. INS/EDS claim that it would cost millions for the institutions to comply with the database requirements if they did not provide the processing for them. They are a bit off in their projections since VisaManagerô and fsaATLAS are both priced on average at $500. The costs would have to increase to provide the electronic interfaces but we are not talking millions of dollars, as EDS would have everyone believe.

Both Windstar and Newfront have repeatedly alerted officials that INS could gather information more quickly by working with existing software vendors, since our software already collects the majority of the data. Instead, INS chose to do its own research and develop its own system, disregarding the IIRIRA directive that was intended to speed the process. The costs of SEVP will be more than CIPRIS and the implementation will take longer. At the spring NAFSA conference, INS/EDS estimated that SEVP would be implemented in phases over the next 3-5 years! Although INS/EDS say that they will allow for interfaces for data transmission from existing systems, they continue to put off specifying the interfaces needed to build the electronic interfaces. (We have been going to INS meetings literally for years, most recently in early September in Charlestown, SC, to obtain the specs and have yet to receive them.)

So here we are, waiting for INS and other government officials to wake up to the fact that information is already available in electronic form at the educational institutions. (We have been writing to our Congressmen and INS since last spring about this and continue to do so.) We can modify our software products quickly and transmit student data efficiently within the next few months (even weeks) rather than the years proposed by INS. The special student fee would become unnecessary. A majority of institutions use our products already and would be able to smoothly transition to the new INS transmission process. Congress would not even need to pass specific legislation to incorporate the transmission of such data into law.

In my opinion EDS is calling all the shots on this one. With profits and revenues down in the major corporations because of the bust and resulting economic downturn, EDS needed to find other revenue and last year they discovered the opportunities posed by SEVP. I do not think that those that are involved in the decision process understand enough about computer applications to listen to anyone other than EDS. I like to call SEVP the full EDS employment program.

I wish to thank Sanjeev Kale, President, Newfront Software for his significant contributions to this.

Paula N. Singer, Esq.
Partner, Vacovec, Mayotte & Singer
Co-CEO and Founder, Windstar Technologies, Inc.