IG report: Tracking system won't be ready

While earning high marks for effort, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is almost certain to get an incomplete when the deadline for its automated student-tracking system arrives in January 2003.

The $37 million system, designed to keep tabs on foreign students, is unlikely to be operational on time, the Justice Department inspector general said.

INS announced plans this month to begin operating the system in July and have it fully operational by January 2003. But the Justice inspector general doubts it will happen. "We question whether the INS will be able to complete this huge undertaking before January 30, 2003," said Glenn Fine, the Justice inspector general, in a report on an investigation ordered by President Bush.

Regulations must be written, thousands of personnel trained and about 72,000 schools certified to use the new Internet-based tracking system, Fine said in a report released May 20.

An automated student-tracking system has become a political imperative since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks because some of the 19 terrorists who hijacked four airliners had been students at flight schools in the United States. Attention focused on their student status in March, when INS sent notices approving student visas for two of the terrorists — six months after they were killed in the attacks.

Uproar over the notices prompted Bush to order an investigation.

More than 1 million foreign students attend schools in the United States. The State Department is responsible for issuing them student visas, and INS is responsible for keeping track of them while they are here.

The current INS tracking system, which relies heavily on paper documents, data-entry clerks and the mail, is "untimely and significantly flawed," Fine concluded.

It is to be replaced with the Student Exchange and Visitor Information System (SEVIS), which would enable schools to report information on foreign students — when they arrive, what they are studying, when they change addresses — to INS instantaneously via the Internet.

But much must be done before SEVIS is serviceable, according to Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education.

Academic institutions need four tools to make SEVIS work, Hartle said: an INS Web site to gather information, regulations under which the system will operate, software for the system and training for personnel.

"At the present time, we're zero for four," Hartle said.

INS officials have said they would have a working SEVIS Web site by July 1, but regulations are still being developed. Software cannot be written until the regulations are set, and training depends on having the software.

Among the daunting chores for INS is "recertifying" 72,000 schools that are now authorized to receive foreign students. That's 8,000 schools a month if INS starts right away. Because the agency has no personnel assigned full-time to recertifying duties, "it appears unlikely the INS could meet such a demanding schedule," Fine wrote. INS employees need training as well, he said.

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