- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2003

An Immigration and Naturalization Service program that tracks foreign students studying in the United States has not yet been fully implemented as required by Congress, and significant deficiencies remain before it can be fully used.
The Justice Department's Office of Inspector General said INS oversight of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) was inadequate to ensure that the schools listed by foreign students were real. It also said there were no procedures to use the program to identify and refer potential fraud for enforcement action.
Inspector General Glenn A. Fine also said an INS review of schools' record-keeping and internal controls was insufficient to ensure they were complying with SEVIS record-keeping requirements or to identify internal-control weaknesses that could allow fraud to occur undetected.
"The INS asserts that SEVIS was fully implemented by January 1, 2003, because it was technically available as of that date. However, we believe full implementation requires more than technical availability," Mr. Fine said, adding that Congress had set the Jan. 1 deadline.
INS has since been transferred to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which the Inspector General's Office said created a "significant management challenge for DHS officials to ensure a smooth transition."
The agency was at the center of a firestorm when it acknowledged that six months after the September 11 attacks, a Florida flight school had received notification that hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi had received approval to change their immigration status to that of students.
Although the forms were only a notification of a decision made several months before September 11, their mailings raised questions about INS handling of Atta's and Al-Shehhi's change-of-status applications and about the agency's ability to monitor and track foreign students in the United States.
An investigation by the Inspector General's Office found that Atta's and Al-Shehhi's applications were not adjudicated until after they had finished flight training, and that the INS official who approved the applications did so without adequate information, including the fact that both men had left the country two times after filing their change-of-status applications, which meant they had abandoned the applications.
According to the new inquiry, INS hired contract investigators to perform on-site reviews of schools and provided the investigators with INS-developed checklists to use in conducting their reviews.
However, the report said, INS failed to properly train the investigators, test the checklist for usefulness and completeness, or monitor the quality of the investigators' on-site reviews.
As a result, Mr. Fine said, the completed checklists were of limited use to INS field adjudicators in determining whether a school was bona fide.
The report also said INS relied on the contract investigators to conduct compliance audits to ensure that schools had appropriate internal controls in place and were entering data into SEVIS accurately, completely and in a timely manner.
But, the report said, the process was not sufficient to identify a school's internal-control weaknesses, which could lead to fraud, or to conclude that a school's SEVIS records were complete, accurate and current.
Mr. Fine said the SEVIS database will not include information on all foreign students until Aug. 1.
Until then, he said, INS will continue to operate its "inadequate, paper-based system to monitor continuing foreign students."
According to the report, INS needs to ensure that it uses the information from the SEVIS database to identify foreign students who are not complying with visa requirements.
The agency also needs to use the information to identify sham schools, it said.
The report also concluded that INS must ensure that any instances of potential fraud are referred for further investigation and enforcement action. The Inspector General's Office made eight recommendations to help improve the effectiveness of the SEVIS program.
"Once fully implemented, SEVIS should provide a more effective mechanism to monitor both foreign students and the schools that they attend," Mr. Fine said.

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