We already track some visitors “like FedEx packages.” It works terribly.

The vast majority of American voters will never have to deal with America’s vast immigration bureaucracy, which means they know next to nothing about it. If they did, they would probably have a lot more sympathy for people who have to deal with it, and (I like to think!) they might even demand to know why it is so broken and awful.

Chris Christie, via Wikimedia Commons

Chris Christie, via Wikimedia Commons

For instance, if Chris Christie knew a bit more about our immigration system, he might have thought twice before blurting out that we need to track immigrants the way FedEx tracks packages.

Aside from the sleaziness of comparing immigrants who come to this country for a variety of legitimate reasons to “packages,” we already have a tracking system in place. For the F/M/J visas students use to attend American universities and other educational institutions, registering through an online tracking system is required by law. And it is nearly as intrusive as Christie’s policy would imply.

SEVIS, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, is a tool the Department of Homeland Security uses to monitor foreign exchange students, granting them access to a wide breadth of information including the student’s location and whether they are attending classes. Schools and other host institutions are expected to regularly update SEVIS with information regarding their students, or they can have their status as a hosting institution revoked.

Here’s a brief chart outlining how it works (notice how it’s expensive just to apply, let alone stay):

Chart via Brookings.edu

As I mentioned above, most Americans have no personal experience or even anecdotal awareness of these programs. The only reason I know about SEVIS in the first place is that I lived in Russia on two separate occasions and hosted friends in the U.S. when they came to visit for short-term study abroad programs. When one of my friends who was visiting received a threatening email saying that they had violated SEVIS’ terms and needed to leave the country — EFFECTIVE  IMMEDIATELY — I had to help them not get deported.

It turns out, SEVIS is a largely punitive system that creates perverse incentives for institutions to scare students into believing they’re going to get deported. Because the costs of not reporting a student are so high, it appears that students get reported all the time for reasons which would otherwise not result in their immigration status being terminated.

My friend, for example, came to the U.S. before their program began because their visa said they could (visa start and end dates are often arbitrarily set). SEVIS knew they were in the U.S., but had yet to report to their host institution.

Everything turned out fine, but it took a day or two to sort out.

A cursory Google search reveals how often this kind of thing happens. For example, one student claimed to have been reported by his school for “unauthorized employment” because he had listed a volunteer position on his LinkedIn. Immigration law forums are full of these kinds of cases (many with thread titles like “weird problem, very urgent!”), and in some cases the only solution is to seek reinstatement by going to court and paying thousands of dollars in legal fees. In other cases reinstatement is not even an option. In other cases, even getting out of the country seems impossible.

Go figure!

The funny thing is, I thought Russia’s visa restrictions were bad. They require foreigners to register each and every address they stay at for longer than 7 days; to list those places ahead of time on the visa application; and to carry around a passport, visa and migration card (a tiny piece of paper that is incredibly easy to lose) at all times or risk being deported. But as their system is entirely paper-based, they can’t track you in real time.

We can.

If Chris Christie had bothered to do even the slightest bit of homework before comparing immigrants to pieces of mail, complete with tracking numbers, he’d have found out that our police state is more comprehensive than Russia’s. Our Terms and Conditions for coming to the U.S. cut against fundamental privacy rights, quite literally tracking foreign students like FedEx packages. And the policy isn’t working well.

A primer on DHS information requests under SEVIS, via Wolfsdorf

James Neimeister is a freelance writer from Ohio. His interests include: Russia, Ukraine, education, technology, and "cyberspace."

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