Start date uncertain for student tracking

The $38 million computer system being built to keep track of foreign students will be operational Jan. 30, 2003, as required by law, the Immigration and Naturalization Service told a House subcommittee Sept. 18.

Not likely, the INS' parent agency, the Justice Department, told the House Judiciary Committee's Immigration and Claims Subcommittee.

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

For example, 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.

What's more, there is no training program to teach school personnel or INS employees how to operate SEVIS.

And the schools already using the system are discovering glitches. Duke University found 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 learned that a foreign applicant had provided fraudulent information, SEVIS would not let Duke officials withdraw the false documents, said Catheryn Cotton, director of Duke's International Office.

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

She said that 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.

School officials doubt that 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, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.

INS has set up a help desk to assist schools trying to operate SEVIS, but schools report "very uneven success in getting answers from the INS help desk," Hartle said. And INS has ignored repeated pleas to hold regional training sessions for school employees who will have to use SEVIS, he said.

The system is considered an important part of the effort to improve homeland security by keeping better track of foreign students. Several of the hijackers in last September's terrorist attacks came to the United States and studied at flying schools.

And in an embarrassing episode last March, INS issued two of the hijackers student visas six months after they died in the attacks they carried out.

Fine said SEVIS could become an important tool in detecting foreign student fraud.

Analyzing data collected by SEVIS could highlight schools with high "no-show" rates or high dropout rates, which could indicate alien-smuggling operations, he said.

In the past, some schools have served as an easy entryway for foreigners to the United States by enrolling hundreds more foreign students than they have room for.

The system is also intended to make up-to-date foreign student records instantly available to authorities at ports of entry, consular posts, INS service centers and law enforcement agencies.


A work in progress

How the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) is supposed to work:

1. A foreign student applies for admission to a U.S. school.

2. The school accepts the student, fills out an I-20 form indicating the student's eligibility to study in the United States and enters the information into SEVIS.

3. The student applies for a student visa through a U.S. consulate or embassy in his or her home country. The consulate or embassy checks SEVIS to verify the student's eligibility.

4. The student arrives in the United States. Immigration officials verify his or her student status by checking SEVIS.

5. The student's arrival at school is recorded in SEVIS.

The student must report any address changes, course study changes, employment, transfers and other status changes to school officials, who update SEVIS.

School officials must notify the Immigration and Naturalization Service if the student fails to report changes or meet other conditions of the student visa.


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