INS to meet deadline for tracking foreign students

The Immigration and Naturalization Service told Congress on Tuesday its system for tracking foreign students will be operational by its January deadline. However, members of Congress and university leaders are concerned about the system’s effectiveness.

The Student Exchange and Visitor Information System will have difficulty preventing student visa fraud and cannot account for the significant number of international students who have overstayed their visas, an INS official acknowledged.

Universities contend that the INS won’t be able to process the information that SEVIS will collect every semester on more than 500,000 international students who are studying in this country.

Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., noted that a Georgia professor was indicted earlier this year on charges of creating 17 fake student visas, and asked whether SEVIS could safeguard against such occurrences.

“No system is completely fraud-proof,” said INS spokeswoman Janis Sposato. She said it would be difficult to detect fraud by a school official who was using legitimate documents.

She also said SEVIS could not track international students who were in the United States illegally. Nor will the system track foreign workers or tourists who take classes part time.

The cost and upkeep of SEVIS are unknown, Sposato said, although the INS would charge visa applicants up to $100 to help pay for the system.

Congress created SEVIS in 1996 in response to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. One of the terrorists involved in the bombing had come to the United States on a student visa. A January 2003 deadline was set to have the system operating.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, in which three of the hijackers had used student visas, Congress appropriated $37 million to ensure that SEVIS met that deadline.

The INS is expected to oversee the system’s implementation at more than 7,000 higher education institutions with a staff of 1,500 contracted workers, Sposato said. Nearly 1,000 schools currently are compliant with SEVIS, she said.

But university officials worry that the deadline is too near and the resources too slim.

“We are somewhat concerned about how much remains to be done in a rapidly shrinking amount of time,” testified David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, which represents numerous higher education associations.

Ward said the final rules for universities to follow regarding SEVIS had not been published. Sposato said they would be published by January.

The INS attempted to create a database of foreign students in the mid-1980s, but the lists of foreign students’ names and addresses just sat in a warehouse, Dixon Johnson, executive director of international student services at the University of Southern California, said in a telephone interview.

“The track record with such innovations is not one that encourages confidence,” Johnson said.

Johnson said SEVIS would be a vast improvement over the present situation if the INS had enough resources and universities and colleges got assistance.

The INS has a monumental task in not only collecting the data on 500,000 international students each year but also on following up on any information it deems appropriate, John Greisberger, director of the office of international education at Ohio State University, said in a telephone interview.

Glenn A. Fine, inspector general for the Justice Department, told Congress on Tuesday that the INS needs more resources and more staff to implement SEVIS effectively.

Another topic at the hearing was the backlog of male Muslim international students applying to study in the United States, which is growing because of a policy that the Bush administration began earlier this year. The policy, independent of SEVIS, requires extensive background checks and Washington approval for men from 26 Muslim countries.

The backlog is due to the newness of the policy combined with the beginning of fall semesters, said Stephen Edson, a spokesman for the State Department.


(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.