Critics dog student tracking system

SEVIS information page

The system designed to track foreign students has been criticized as being rife with technology glitches and management flaws, but immigration officials maintained last week that the system works.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System has taken hits from the Justice Department's inspector general, the academic community and lawmakers for numerous technology snags and concerns about inefficient oversight.

"SEVIS is a new system, developed and deployed under an aggressive schedule," Johnny Williams, interim director for immigration and interior enforcement at the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told lawmakers at an April 2 House committee hearing. "Any new system will have bugs and anomalies that must be addressed."

The most recent snag in the $38 million project is known as bleeding, which occurs when one college or university prints SEVIS forms and they show up on another college's printer. The glitch raises privacy concerns. For example, a confidential form sent to print by someone at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a secure government installation, instead popped out of a printer at a school in San Francisco, according to David Ward, president of the American Council on Education.

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

Ward told lawmakers April 2 that colleges have also had trouble processing large batches of information, and often that data is lost by the system.

The result of the glitches is that it makes it harder for foreign students to study in the United States, he said.

"I fear that we are, for [various] reasons, making it more difficult for international students and scholars to come to our country and complete their studies," Ward said. "Eventually, [the system] will work well, but the damage to our reputation as the destination of choice may be seriously undermined before that happens."

In a report released last month, Justice IG Glenn Fine said that despite assertions from immigration officials that SEVIS has been up and running since January, the system is not fully implemented. It has "serious deficiencies," including an incomplete database and improperly trained investigators.

Referencing that report, Fine said last week that contract inspectors lack oversight, leading to insufficient reviews of colleges. Inspectors were using checklists with sparse information and no narrative comments about colleges. Those investigators were insufficiently controlled and monitored, he said.

Immigration adjudicators were not properly trained in what to look for on the contractors' checklists and how to identify sham colleges. Immigration inspectors at ports of entry also lacked technical training on using the system, he said.

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

Former Immigration and Naturalization Service district director Thomas Fischer described SEVIS as a "dumbed down" version of the Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students, which began in 1997 but was discontinued two years later. SEVIS replaced CIPRIS, but Fischer said the new system lacks nearly two dozen key features that support the program's objectives.

Officials also raised concerns about the fee collection process because the government has not published regulations on how that will occur. Ward proposed that fees be collected at consular offices, rather than through a separate process, but said officials may be reluctant to transfer funds from the State Department to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Current students already are entered into the system, and college officials will add new students by August. Many officials worry the system won't be able to handle the data influx. Technology snags delayed by two weeks the Jan. 30 deadline for colleges to enter information.

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Program learning curve

The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System has been criticized for technology snags and insufficient management. Among the concerns:

* College officials try to print SEVIS forms and they show up on another college's printer. The flaw, known as bleeding, raises security concerns.

* College officials have trouble entering large amounts of data.

* The contracted inspectors reviewing colleges lack oversight, leaving little assurance that they are doing thorough work.

* Immigration adjudicators and inspectors lack sufficient training on the system, making them less able to identify sham colleges.

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