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25 April 2003

U.S. Making Progress on Foreign Student Data System

(Technical challenges of system being addressed) (1150)
By Anthony Kujawa
Washington File Staff Writer


Washington -- Problems associated with the implementation of a new
data system for monitoring foreign students in the United States are
being addressed immediately, aggressively and accurately, say U.S.
immigration officials.


Speaking before Congress and numerous educational associations in
recent months, officials say the Student Exchange and Visitor
Information Program (SEVIS) will enhance homeland security by
combating fraud and ensuring that international students comply with
the terms of the visas through which they entered the United States.
But they say the system has also faced technical challenges.

The $36 million Internet-based student registration system enables
U.S. academic institutions to maintain accurate and timely data on
foreign students, exchange visitors and their dependents, and
communicate this information to the departments of Homeland Security
and State in real time.

As of February 15, 2003, all higher education institutions in the
United States accepting foreign students are required to use SEVIS to
issue new SEVIS I-20 forms, and currently 400,000 student records are
in the SEVIS system. By August 1, 2003, information on all
international exchange students must be entered in the system.

Yet educators say that SEVIS has been plagued with technical problems.
Speaking at an April 16 forum in Washington, "Sustaining Exchanges
While Securing Borders," Marlene Johnson, executive director of the
Association of International Educators (NAFSA), called SEVIS a
"broken" and problem-plagued monitoring system.

"We have essentially put students and scholars at the mercy of a
system that is being tested in real time," said Johnson.

She urged the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to allow a grace
period during which schools could use pre-SEVIS forms and procedures
if they were not able to use SEVIS due to technical problems. A grace
period similar to one allowed from January 30 to February 15, 2003,
with both systems functioning at the same time, she said, would not
compromise security.

By August 1 an expected 1.5 million records will be entered into
SEVIS, which Johnson warned, "shows no sign of being able to handle
the load."

A participant at the April 16 forum described numerous technical and
data integrity problems associated with the SEVIS system, pressing a
DHS representative for answers. The participant said international
student advisors are often "timed out" of SEVIS when entering data and
then required to reenter information. She also described incidents of
SEVIS forms processed at one school being printed at another, an
occurrence the HLS calls "bleeding," -- the unintended merging of data
from one school to another. Many advisors use SEVIS on weekends or "at
three in the morning," she said, to avoid delays associated with SEVIS
being "too busy."

In response, Stella Jarina, Director of Student Affairs for SEVIS at
the DHS Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the
problem of users being "timed out" was corrected on March 15 and DHS
is making every effort to correct problems as they arise.

While occurrences of "bleeding" have been "sporadic," Jarina said the
problem should be fixed within three to four weeks.

Officials say the SEVIS system is not designed to be a barrier to
legitimate educational exchange, but aims to produce efficiencies in
communications, replacing a largely inefficient paper-based system.
Jarina said that SEVIS produces counterfeit-resistant visa documents
for consular and immigration officials that will facilitate entry to
the United States.

Commenting on SEVIS in an April 14 address in Washington to the
American Association of Universities, DHS Secretary Tom Ridge said,
"I'm not here to sugarcoat the problem." He told the educators, "We
still have problems we have to get through in order to make this work
for you and for us."

"No university official should have to spend countless hours trying to
enter the records of one individual student or learn that one of your
students' records suddenly popped up on another school's computer,"
added Ridge.

The Secretary explained that DHS holds weekly conference calls with
education associations to identify and correct problems associated
with the implementation of SEVIS.

"Already we've fixed several of the technical problems, and we're hard
at work on the data-bleeding issue," said Ridge.

Ridge said President Bush "firmly believes" as stated in Homeland
Security Presidential Directive 2, that "the United States benefits
greatly from international students. We must continue to foster and
support them."

Ridge called international students at U.S. educational institutions
"indispensable to America's continued leadership in science and in
medicine and in technology." He said the United States "would be a far
poorer nation in many, many ways," if it loses future leaders to
schools in other nations due to changing visa policies.

The Secretary described one proposed program to help facilitate the
visa issuance process called IPASS or Interagency Panel on Advance
Science and Security. This program will increase the involvement of
U.S. Government scientific experts working with law enforcement
representatives to advise on science-related visa applications.

"IPASS will add the voices and expertise of scientific experts to the
visa approval process, and the end result we hope will be to speed
approval or reentry of researchers and students who pose no threat,"
he said.

Commenting on problems associated with foreign students and
researchers returning home for summer vacation or personal reasons and
having difficulty returning to the United States, Ridge said that
apart from SEVIS or IPASS "we need to separate" and "come up with a
mechanism," to expedite the return of student who have already been
through security procedures.

"If we don't do that," added Ridge, students will "be less inclined to
enroll in [U.S.] universities in the first place, and that's just not
something we can afford to let happen."

In testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing April 2 on
the implementation and proposed modifications of SEVIS, another DHS
official, Johnny Williams of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs
Enforcement, said that "although we cannot guarantee that this new
Internet application will not have additional problems over the next
year, we can assure you that any such problems shall be addressed
immediately, aggressively and professionally."

Williams said that DHS has worked closely with international
educational organizations to make SEVIS a "sustained success," and
considers these interactions "vitally important."

"SEVIS allows our nation to strike the proper balance between openness
to international students and exchange visitors and the necessary
security obtained by enforcing our nation's laws," said Williams.

Expressing optimism about the future of SEVIS, David Ward, president
of the American Council on Education, remarked at the April 16 forum
in Washington that most academic institutions understand SEVIS "will
be a good thing in the long haul and have gained increasing confidence
that when a problem is stated it will be solved."

(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International
Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:
http://usinfo.state.gov)