Lawmakers hear of problems with INS student tracking system

Lawmakers are revisiting the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Student and Exchange Visitor Information System after numerous complaints of faulty technology.

In a hearing before the House Science Committee today, David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, said the system’s data structure and the communication between the colleges and universities required to use the system, the BCIS and the State Department, which issues visas, are two of the biggest problems with the system.

“We complained to the [BCIS] last year that this would not work because there wasn’t enough testing, but Congress pressured the agency to get it up by Jan.1,” Ward said. “SEVIS can be fixed and it is a good idea, but there is not a meeting of the minds right now.”

Congress mandated INS, which has since been renamed and transferred to the Homeland Security Department, to set up a foreign-student and professor tracking system after the 1993 World Trade Center attack.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks Congress moved the timeline to Jan. 1, 2003, from 2005, said a Science Committee staff member. It also allocated an additional $36.8 million to help the agency meet the faster timeframe. Colleges and universities that did not connect to SEVIS by Feb. 15 could not accept foreign students until they linked to the system, the staff member said.

Ward and Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University, told the committee that the system has too many technical problems.

Ward said schools routinely lose data entered into the system and have had printouts end up at other schools. For instance, he said, an official at Stanford University in California printed out a student’s immigration form and it ended up printed at Duke University in North Carolina. Ward added that batch processing works “intermittently at best,” while some schools haven’t made it work at all.

Tilghman said Princeton spent more than $38,000 to comply with SEVIS and found it to be more complicated than originally thought.

“Implementing SEVIS required weeks of effort on the part of our Office of IT, our Office of General Counsel and our undergraduate and graduate international students services offices,” she said. “Eventually we had to assign a technical expert from our Office of IT to focus primarily on maintaining our SEVIS reporting system. SEVIS is far from being plug-and-play technology.”

Tilghman also told the panel that the system has software bugs for which INS has been developing patches to fix.

“Every time INS develops a new patch for its software, we have to wait for our batch processing software vendor to develop a corresponding patch that we must then install,” she said.

INS did not testify at this hearing because of a scheduling conflict, but will at a later hearing, according to a committee spokesman.

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