Student tracking system debated

Despite flaws in the foreign-student tracking system, a top immigration official maintained that the system works and vowed to work to smooth out the kinks.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) has been criticized for technology glitches, such as sending student records to the wrong schools or not allowing batch processing, and inefficient oversight and training.

"Any system flaw in SEVIS is a concern," said Johnny Williams, interim director for immigration and interior enforcement at the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "We're concentrating on that, and we're going to fix it."

Williams was testifying April 2 before the House Judiciary Committee's Immigration, Border Security and Claims Subcommittee. The bureau is part of the new Homeland Security Department and took over the duties of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

One of the most recent glitches is known as bleeding, when one college or university prints SEVIS forms and they show up at another school. For example, a confidential form from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a secure government installation, was printed out at a school in San Francisco, according to David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, also testifying April 2. The glitch raised privacy concerns.

Williams said the bureau has hired a contactor to fix the problem and declared, "We'll keep focusing on it until it's fixed."

Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine said the program lacked proper contractor oversight and inspector and adjudicator training. He said there continue to be gaps in the system, such as contractor investigators failing to conduct thorough on-site reviews of schools and having limited knowledge of the system.

"I do believe there is a problem with oversight," Fine said. "I believe you may trust [contractors], but you need to verify it. You need to spot-check them."

"I think [immigration officials] need more resources for training, more resources for oversight of contractors, more resources for the technical problems," Fine told lawmakers.

Referring to a report released last month, Fine also said the program is not fully implemented, despite a February deadline for all new students to be registered.

Former INS District Director Thomas Fischer said SEVIS is a scaled-down version of the Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students (CIPRIS), which began in 1997 but was discontinued a couple of years later. SEVIS has replaced CIPRIS, but Fischer said the new system lacks nearly two-dozen features that support the program's objectives.

"A review of the current SEVIS program...indicates to me a "dumbed-down" version of CIPRIS," Fischer said.

Williams continued to defend the system, saying it greatly enhances the government's ability to manage and monitor foreign students.

"SEVIS is a new system, developed and deployed under an aggressive schedule," he said. "Any new system will have bugs and anomalies that must be addressed."

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