Student tracking system lagging

The $38 million computer system being built to keep track of foreign students will be operational Jan. 30, as required by law, the Immigration and Naturalization Service told a House committee Sept. 18.

Not likely, said the INS' parent agency, the Justice Department.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS, may be "technically operational" by Jan. 30, but key elements of system are so far from ready now that they cannot be made ready by the deadline, said Glenn Fine, the Justice Department's inspector general.

For example, the INS must recertify schools that are allowed to enroll foreign students. To date, only 736 schools have been approved to use the SEVIS system. Another 1,200 are in the process, but as many as 70,000 schools have to be recertified.

Schools with hundreds or even thousands of foreign students want to be able to transfer existing electronic files to SEVIS, but the required "batch processing" system won't be ready for testing until mid-October.

There is no meaningful training program exists to teach school personnel or INS employees how to operate SEVIS.

And the schools already using the system are finding glitches. Duke University discovered that the electronic application for foreign students does not accept "Ph.D." when it asks what degrees students are studying for. And when the university found that a foreign applicant has provided fraudulent information, SEVIS would not let Duke officials withdraw the false documents.

But Janis Sposato, a chief in the INS' immigration services division, said she remains "confident that we will meet the congressionally mandated deadline for full implementation" of SEVIS.

She said schools will be required to use the system for all foreign students they admit after Jan. 30. By the next academic semester, all foreign students are expected to be enrolled in SEVIS, she said.

Schools doubt that is possible. "The INS has made progress much more rapidly than we thought possible, but much remains to be done in a shrinking period of time," said Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education.

The INS has set up a "help desk" to assist schools trying to operate SEVIS, but schools report "very uneven success in getting answers," Hartle said.

The system is considered an important part of the effort to improve homeland security by keeping better track of foreign students. It is intended to make up-to-date foreign student records instantly available at ports of entry, consular posts, INS service centers and to law enforcement agencies. That would alert authorities to foreigners who are in the United States on student visas but are not attending school.

In the past, schools have served as an easy entryway to the United States by letting foreigners to pose as students. Some have enrolled hundreds of foreign students more than they can accommodate, while others have reported students as enrolled for as long as seven years after they should have graduated, Fine said.

Data in the SEVIS system could be used to highlight schools with high "no-show" rates or high dropouts rates, which could indicate alien smuggling operations, he said.

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