- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2002

The Immigration and Naturalization Service's foreign-student tracking system won't be fully ready by the Jan. 30 deadline, the Justice Department's chief investigator told Congress yesterday.

Glenn A. Fine, the department's inspector general, told the House immigration, border security and claims subcommittee yesterday that the INS will probably have the actual computer system for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System running on time.

But he said the INS will not have finished on-site evaluations of every school, nor will it have properly trained school officials by the January deadline imposed by law.

"Despite the substantial efforts made by the INS, we continue to believe that full implementation of SEVIS is unlikely by Jan. 30," Mr. Fine said.

Three of the terrorists who hijacked the planes used in the September 11 attacks were in the United States on student visas. Then, six months after they died in the attack, the INS sent new visas for two of the hijackers to a Florida flight school they once attended.

The new system, for which Congress appropriated $36 million, is designed to allow officials to monitor students to make sure they are actually enrolled in classes at the schools for which they obtained their visas.

The INS official overseeing the program acknowledged that the agency may not meet Mr. Fine's criteria, but she said they will have the computer system operational by Jan. 1, and schools will be able to enter new students in the system by the deadline.

"If we can keep to our schedule, SEVIS will be fully deployed by Jan. 1. We are doing everything we can to meet that schedule, and frankly the toughest part is behind us," said Janis Sposato, an assistant deputy executive associate commissioner at the INS.

Accredited schools including flight, language and vocational-training schools are allowed to enroll foreign students. Once they accept a student for admission, they send him or her an I-20 form, which allows the student to apply for a visa from the State Department.

But the INS has not maintained its list of certified schools. In a May report, the inspector general sampled 200 schools on the list and found 86 no longer existed, 49 listed incorrect addresses and another 16 had wrong names.

The new system requires that schools reapply for certification, which will give them access to a central database to input information about an applicant and to issue him an I-20 form. Miss Sposato said that as of Tuesday more than 900 schools had already been given preliminary approval and are using the SEVIS system, 489 other schools had completed applications and an additional 625 schools are in the application process.

She said none of those schools have been visited by inspectors yet, but the INS has contracts with background investigators to begin on-site visits in a few weeks.

She said that while not all schools will be visited before the deadline, the investigators will start with flight and language schools, which pose the most risk.

But Mr. Fine said the INS doesn't have a plan to make the contracted investigators accountable.

He also said the INS itself may have a training problem with its own employees because it hasn't assigned any employees in district offices to monitor the program full time.

He said that means their attention to the program could be trumped by other priorities.

Catheryn D. Cotten, director of the International Office at Duke University in North Carolina, said the INS has improved since the inspector general's first report in May.

But she said there are still many questions including the training available to schools and whether the INS will allow enough persons to be designated to enter students' information.

She also pointed out bugs in the current version of the program, which Duke is testing as part of a pilot program. In one situation, Duke found one of its applicants submitted a fraudulent document, and asked the INS how to cancel the I-20 form issued to the student. School officials were told they had to wait until 30 days after the student should have been enrolled in school.

"For three or four months, we had a document we knew was for a student that should not be in the country," she said.

Ms. Sposato said that's why the system is being tested, and that the problem has been corrected in the next version, due out in October.

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