WASHINGTON – Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a new student visa tracking program Friday that would create an Internet-based system allowing the Immigration and Naturalization Service to keep tabs on hundreds of thousands of foreign students.
"Today we begin the process of bringing our student visa system into the 21st century. We are taking advantage of the latest in technology to link colleges and universities to the Immigration and Naturalization Service in a centralized, rapid-access reporting system," Ashcroft said Friday.
The Student Exchange and Visa Information System, linking every U.S. consulate with every legal port of entry and 74,000 American educational institutions, should be in place by next January, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. ACE represents 1,800 private and public colleges and universities.
"What INS is trying to do on a very compressed timetable," Hartle said, "is orders of magnitude harder than any federal agency has attempted to do before with colleges and universities and other schools."
Congress approved the INS student tracking system in a bill sent to the president earlier this week. The legislation was prompted by the events of Sept. 11, but a tracking system has been authorized by Congress since 1996, three years after calls for a new system were made following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Installation of the program was stalled, however, after universities and education groups questioned whether the program would be invasive to the 1 million foreign students in the United States merely seeking an education.
Several of the Sept. 11 airline hijackers were in the United States on student visas, with some even having been noted by their schools for questionable behavior.
The Arizona flight school where Hani Hanjour — believed to have piloted the plane that hit the Pentagon — attended complained that Hanjour lacked English and flying skills needed for the commercial pilot's license he already had, and that despite being on a student visa for English studies, never showed up for class.
A flight school in Florida received student visas from the INS for hijackers Mohammed Atta and Marawan Al Shehhi six months after the attacks. Atta and Al Shehhi had entered the United States as visitors and enrolled in flight school while their student visas were pending.
Last month, the INS said it would close the loophole Atta and Al Shehhi exploited by not allowing foreign students to enroll in school unless their visas were already approved.
Earlier this week, the U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey held a news conference announcing dozens of arrests in a visa scam involving students accused of paying others to take English proficiency exams for them.
According to court documents filed in Virginia, that investigation uncovered several suspicious items — including a hand-drawn diagram of a plane striking the World Trade Center, catalogues for several flight schools, and a Rolodex containing locations of various oil refineries.
The FBI is looking into whether anyone arrested has ties to terrorism or Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden. The materials were seized around Dec. 7, so investigators will have to determine which of them predate the attacks.
One law-enforcement source told Fox News that authorities will have to consider that some materials may have been obtained after Sept. 11 by individuals sympathetic to bin Laden's cause.
Nonetheless, that does not diminish the value of a paperless student-visa tracking system to law enforcement officials.
Colleges and universities have been keeping records of foreign students for decades, but in 1988, the INS said the paperwork was too cumbersome and told the schools to keep their records on campus.
Students receiving visas in the future will be required to fill out an INS form and pay a $95 registration fee to pay for school entry of their information in the INS database.
The students will be given a receipt, which along with the form must be shown to a consulate before the visa is granted.
Consulate officials will enter the student's visa status in the database, and the INS will notify the school to expect the student within 30 days.
If the student doesn't show, the campus must contact INS within 24 hours.
Fox News' Catherine Herridge and the Associated Press contributed to this report.