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Web-Based System Finds Missing Foreign Students

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Eleven Egyptians made headlines recently when they failed to show up for a month long course at a Montana university. In the past, they might have blended into the country along with millions of other immigrants. But they didn't thanks to a tracking system installed in colleges and universities since 2001.

As NPR's Elaine Korry reports, the system alerts the government when foreign students skip school.

ELAINE KORRY reporting:

The alarm bells went off July 31st at Montana State University in Bozeman. MSU's Cathy Conover says a group of Egyptian students with valid visas for a cultural exchange program had gone missing after clearing customs in New York.

Ms. CATHY CONOVER (Montana State University): We were expecting to have 17 students arrive. Only six students made it.

KORRY: New regulations since 9/11 created a Web based system called SEVIS to monitor the movements of foreign students. Conover says MSU immediately reported that 11 male Egyptians, all from Mansour University in Cairo, had disappeared.

Ms. CONOVER: We alerted Homeland Security in Helena, Montana, our capital. We contacted Homeland Security and Immigration at JFK. And we also contacted Mansour University to let them know that 11 students had not shown up for the program.

KORRY: Once law enforcement was notified, the roundup began. One Egyptian was picked up at his job in a pizzeria near Baltimore. Others had fanned out into New Jersey, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. The last to be arrested, a 17-year-old, was picked up Sunday on the front steps of the apartment he had rented in Richmond, Virginia.

Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, says the manhunt was over in a matter of days.

Mr. DEAN BOYD (Immigration and Customers Enforcement Agency): It was a combination of factors. Good work with state and local police departments and good investigative work. And also the public calling in tips.

KORRY: The names and birth dates of the Egyptians were run through various databases and turned up no links to any criminal or terrorist organization. So why were they here? Again, Dean Boyd.

Mr. BOYD: It's apparent to us that several of them had no intention of attending the program and simply wanted to earn more money and stay and look for a better life in America.

KORRY: Boyd says roughly 1,800 student visa violators from virtually everywhere on earth have been apprehended since SEVIS went online. Most of them have been deported. The Egyptian students face a similar fate, a hearing before an immigration judge and probable transport back home at their own expense. As for the six students who did show up in Bozeman, they're studying English and just returned from a trip to Yellowstone National Park, where by all accounts, they had a great time.

Elaine Korry, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elaine Korry
Elaine Korry is an NPR contributor based in San Francisco. From August 2004-June 2007 she worked as an NPR senior reporter covering social policy for NPR, with a focus on education, and on the lives of the nation's most vulnerable citizens — the homeless, those living in poverty, working in low wage positions, and trying to find their way to a more stable life.
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