Student Visa Tracking System Won't Meet Deadline

The new system for tracking foreign visa students on college campuses will not be fully implemented on deadline due to gaps in information, labor shortages and flaws in the software, Justice Department officials said Wednesday.

They also said foreign students already attending U.S. schools won't be processed through the system until next September.

"While we believe that [the system] will be in operation Jan. 30, there is a question as to whether it will be fully implemented by that date," said Glenn A. Fine, inspector general for the Justice Department.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is seeking to implement the new process at an estimated 10,000 eligible colleges and universities nationwide, concurred with that outlook during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

"It won't make people perfectly happy," said Janis Sposato of the INS immigration services division. She acknowledged that while the online software that will allow schools to process the new and extensive student information will be actively deployed by the January deadline, the agency doesn't necessarily expect that all students will be entered into the database at that time.

"What the INS is trying to do is strike a balance between the desire of having this up and running and used as soon as possible, while allowing schools the time to enter their data," she told the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims.

As of Sept. 11, 1,921 schools were in "various stages in the system," Sposato told lawmakers.

That number includes 736 schools currently issuing and updating student records electronically through the Student Exchange and Visa Information System (SEVIS) and 595 schools that have submitted an application and are awaiting approval to get on the system. Another 590 schools have received applications, but have not yet submitted them, Sposato said.

SEVIS was created in response to the Sept. 11 attacks and fears that foreign visa holders weren't being effectively tracked once they came into the country to attend classes.

The program, which requires schools to monitor foreign students and traveling scholar visa holders, would collect not only registered visa holders' names, addresses and phone numbers, but also their class schedules and any changes to personal information such as when and if a student was arrested, dropped classes or dropped out of school. Officials working on campuses said new rules might even include particulars on students' coursework.

Rules prior to Sept. 11 did not include any disciplined method for tracking students who violated their student visas by dropping out or skipping classes once they enrolled.

A current draft of the regulations guiding this new system says that all schools must have all new students entered into the centralized SEVIS database by Jan. 30, but schools have another year to enter the information on foreign visa students already enrolled before the prior semester.

Observers say the schools will need that extra year to get all of their students registered because the process is laborious and schools aren't getting the help they need from the INS to work through the kinks in the software. In addition, larger schools need to hire additional manpower just to tackle the workload before the January deadline.

"Schools have had hundreds of tech questions and have had very little success on getting help from the helpdesk," said Terry W. Hartle, who testified on behalf of the American Council on Education Wednesday. He referred to the telephone hotline that has been established by the INS to take technology-related calls from schools, and said the fact that the regulations had not yet been published were hindering the process.

"To actually implement it, it would be important to have all of the tools we need," Hartle said. "This is not a prescription for a smooth implementation on campus."

Catheryn D. Cotton, director of the international office at Duke University, testified that it would take one person in the office six months to enter all of the personal data on the school's current load of student visa holders. She said she has already encountered flaws in the program that would not allow her to delete students once they have been entered into the system -- even if those students were found to be using fraudulent documents.

"When we called the helpdesk, we were told, 'Well, you need to wait until 30 days after the person is supposed to be in the school,' before the system will be able to terminate the file," she said.

"It does illustrate that there is much more to be done," said Cotton. "I think the schools need a full year. If we push to put in the data regardless of whether the data is accurate, than that does us all a great disservice."

Sposato said the INS was sending out inspectors to check whether the schools are indeed authorized to accept foreign students, but admitted that the agency will not be able to complete a check of every school by Jan. 30. It was also unclear as to how much oversight the contractors would be able to conduct in the field within the current time constraints.

Over the summer, a private contractor hired to make site visits to help schools with the technological implementation of SEVIS was abruptly taken off the job because the INS instead decided to establish a hotline for troubleshooting. That lack of hands-on help is contributing to the problems at the schools today, Hartle said.

According to one of the contractors who was working with the INS over the summer, 20 percent of the country's schools have 80 percent of the foreign students coming into the United States each year. Figures compiled by the Institute of International Education reveal that 547,876 students held student visas in the 2001-2002 academic year.

Despite the problems, everyone who testified Wednesday was quick to acknowledge that the INS had been trying hard to deploy the system within the current timetable -- they just think the agency, as well as the colleges that bear this new burden, need some additional assistance to get the job done.

"Our concerns include whether the INS will assign and train sufficient numbers of dedicated staff to review and approve the schools' applications to access SEVIS, whether it will conduct sufficient and thorough site visits of schools applying to accept foreign students, whether it will adequately train school officials to use SEVIS, and whether it will train INS inspectors and investigators adequately to use SEVIS to detect fraud," Fine said.

"We must dedicate adequate resources at all points of entry," he added.