Gov’t working out wrinkles in foreign student tracking system

Universities and immigration officials are trying to fix kinks in a new automated system designed to keep tabs on foreign students.

Numerous universities have reported problems with the federal government’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, a computerized tracking system for foreigners who are in the United States as academic or vocational students, or as exchange visitors.

The tracking system, known as SEVIS, has been a national security priority since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Colleges and universities have been working with the government to enter student data into the system.

But it hasn’t been easy.

“It’s been plagued with multiple problems since its inception. The system is not always programmed to do what regulations require us to do, so we have to find ways to work around it,” said Dotty Horton, director of international advising at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas.

UNT’s problems mirror those of other institutions. Campus officials had problems getting on and staying on the system until additional servers were put in place. Sometimes the system does not accept data or changes what has been entered, officials at several universities said. Additionally, it can take 30 minutes to an hour to enter a single record, they said.

Officials at the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said they are working to fix the problems. Since early March, the government has tried to resolve problems with accessing the system or being kicked off. It is also trying to fix a glitch that occurs when a school inputs information but gets a printout with information from another university.

“The data-transference problem is one that is happening sporadically,” said Chris Bentley, a bureau spokesman.

Although the mistakes appear on printouts, the information is correct in the database and isn’t a “huge security issue,” Bentley said, adding that the glitches come with implementing the system.

University officials have emphasized concerns that inaccuracies could create numerous problems for international students because it tracks physical addresses and school attendance.

The Washington Post recently reported that the record of a foreign student attending Harvard University had suddenly appeared on a computer at Cornell University. For a time, records crisscrossed the country so frequently that government trouble-shooters gave the problem a name: “bleeding.”

Computer glitches also surfaced at the University of Texas at Austin, which has 4,500 international students. The university, which also sends student data in batches to the tracking system, has experienced some “bleeding,” said Kitty Villa, assistant director of UT’s international office. She said they had an error in which the person’s last name was listed as an address that wasn’t even in their computer system.