Database to Track Foreign Students Still Is Not Ready, Government Report Finds

By MICHAEL ARNONE

Nearly three months after it was supposed to be ready, the database that the federal government uses to track international students in the United States is still far from being fully operational, a new report from the U.S. Department of Justice has found. The USA Patriot Act of 2001 required the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to create a database to track all foreign students. The INS worked feverishly to build the database last year and rolled out the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or Sevis, on January 1. The INS transferred responsibility for the system to the U.S.Department of Homeland Security on March 1, when the immigration agency was dissolved.

The Justice Department report, dated March 2003, is a follow-up to a September 2002 evaluation of the system's progress by the department's Office of the Inspector General. The follow-up report concludes that while the INS made strides in some areas in rolling out the system, the agency failed to have Sevis fully operational as promised by the Congressionally mandated January 1 deadline. (The full text of the report is available online at the Justice Department's Website; it can be viewed using Adobe Acrobat Reader, available free.) The immigration agency did not complete certification reviews for all institutions that submitted applications to use Sevis, the report says. The report also faults the INS because as of now, the database contains information only on new students, and will not include information on all foreign students until August 1.

The report harshly criticizes the INS for inadequately training and supervising the contractors the government uses to visit campuses to ensure that colleges are genuine institutions of higher education. The trainings for adjudicators -- the officials who make the final decision on whether to approve an institution -- and inspectors at ports of entry are also insufficient, according to the report. Perhaps most damning is the report's contention that the INS has not developed procedures to use Sevis to detect fraud, even though fighting visa fraud was one of the explicit reasons that Sevis was originally developed. The report also says the INS has not reviewed colleges' record-keeping and other internal controls to make sure that fraud has not occurred. But officials working with Sevis feel that the report does not accurately reflect the real situation. "We disagree with the inspector general's conclusion that Sevis isn't fully implemented as advertised," said Christopher S. Bentley, a former spokesman for the INS and now spokesman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the branch of the Homeland Security Department that took charge of Sevis. Last fall, Mr. Bentley said, INS officials told Congressional panels that the system would be in place by January 1, and that data for different students would be due at different times. The only institutions for which the agency did not complete certification reviews were those that did not have finished applications to use the system, he said. The INS did notify all institutions, though, of the status of their applications, he said. That argument did not wash with the inspector general's office. "We believe that full implementation includes not only technical availability," the report says, but also remedying problems with the system.

The report does note some areas of progress, including requiring previously approved institutions to reapply. Non-accredited vocational, language, and flight schools now must have on-site reviews before they can use Sevis. All offices of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security Department branch that handles immigration services, and consular offices of the U.S. Department of State have access to the system. The report also recognizes that the INS lacked the money and manpower to investigate fraud and enforce laws. Another database that the government insisted the INS use to register men from many predominantly Arab and Muslim countries -- the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or Nseers -- distracted much of the agency's time and employees from working on Sevis.

To remedy the problems, the report suggests that the government make a program manager and staff members solely responsible for international students. It also recommends that contractors and adjudicators should be better trained, and that the Homeland Security Department should coordinate with the Department of Education to conduct audits on institutions to ensure compliance with federal visa laws. Finally, the Homeland Security Department should seek out fraud and assign money and employees to investigate it.