Follow-up Review on the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Efforts to Track Foreign Students in the United States through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System
Report Number I-2003-003
The INS has several responsibilities related to foreign students. These responsibilities include determining the eligibility of a school to receive foreign students, inspecting the documents of foreign students entering the United States, monitoring foreign students to ensure that they maintain their visa status, facilitating the removal of foreign students once their status ends, and approving transfers, practical training, and program extensions for foreign students enrolled in vocational programs.9 The INS also is responsible for processing the requests of aliens in the United States who want to acquire student status.
In 1983, the INS implemented the Student and Schools System (STSC). STSC contained basic information on INS-certified schools and the foreign students who entered the United States with I-20s issued by these schools. With respect to foreign students, STSC only contained I-20 information; it did not indicate whether foreign students actually enrolled in the school or include information on students' academic progress. The INS instead required schools to manually collect data on foreign students attending their school, including names, addresses, dates of birth, visa classifications, student status, courses of study, academic disciplinary actions taken, and dates and reasons for termination. Schools were not required to report this information regularly to the INS, but were required to provide this information to the INS when requested to do so. As a result, although the INS knew how many foreign students entered the United States, it was unable to keep track of them to ensure that they complied with their visa requirements.
The discovery that one of the terrorists involved in the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center was in the United States on an expired student visa resulted in the formation of a multi-agency task force in June 1995 to review the INS's process for monitoring foreign students and exchange visitors. On September 30, 1996, Congress enacted Public Law 104-208, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which mandated that the INS develop a system to collect foreign student information electronically from colleges and universities. This requirement did not include vocational or language schools. IIRIRA also mandated that the INS establish a fee, to be imposed on foreign students and exchange visitors, to fund the system.
In June 1997, the INS implemented a pilot project, the Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students (CIPRIS), to test the concept of an electronic reporting system. According to the INS, the CIPRIS pilot project was designed as a "throw-away" program to test the feasibility of electronic reporting. Although the CIPRIS pilot project officially ended in October 1999, the project continued operating as a prototype pending the development of a nationwide system. Subsequent to the pilot project, the design of the new system changed to an Internet-based system. In July 2001, the INS changed the name of the system to SEVIS to distinguish between the two systems, which functioned similarly, but differed in design.
CIPRIS, and later SEVIS, encountered opposition from some school association lobbying groups, who primarily objected to the imposition of a foreign student processing fee. Because the INS was relying on fee collections to fund SEVIS, the delays in establishing the fee process affected the development of SEVIS.
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks drew renewed attention to foreign students when it was determined that several of the terrorists either were in the United States on student visas, had recently changed their visa status to a student status, or had attended flight schools. On October 26, 2001, Congress enacted the USA PATRIOT Act (Public Law 107-56), which required the INS to fully implement SEVIS by January 1, 2003. The law also required the INS to include information on each foreign student's or exchange program visitor's port of entry and date of entry, and it expanded the types of schools required to participate in SEVIS to include flight schools, language training schools, and vocational schools. Congress provided $36.8 million in appropriations to fully fund the SEVIS implementation.
The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2001 (Public Law 107-173), enacted on May 8, 2002, required additional information on foreign students to be captured electronically, such as the issuance of an I-20, the issuance of a visa, and the registration and enrollment of the student at the school.10 It also required schools to report to the INS, no later than 30 days after the school registration deadline, the failure of an alien to enroll or commence participation in an INS-approved school, or a designated exchange visitor program. The law also established a transition program for issuing foreign student and exchange visitor visas pending full SEVIS implementation.
Since May 2002 the INS has published a series of rules in the Federal Register to implement SEVIS:
SEVIS Implementation Schedule
While the INS established January 30, 2003, as the mandatory implementation date by which all schools were required to begin issuing SEVIS I-20s to their new students, the INS subsequently extended this date to February 15, 2003. During January 2003, as more schools and foreign exchange visitor program sponsors began to access SEVIS, technical problems developed. Users had difficulty logging onto SEVIS, and as the volume of users grew, the system became increasingly sluggish. The INS also was struggling to complete its certification reviews of those schools that had submitted their applications by November 15, 2002.12 Until the INS completed these reviews, these schools would not be able to accept any new foreign students.
On January 29, 2003, the INS issued a statement extending the mandatory compliance date from January 30, 2003, to February 15, 2003. During this 2-week extension, the INS planned to correct the system's problems and complete its certification reviews of those schools that applied by November 15, 2002. 13
The INS is requiring all schools to use SEVIS for I-20s issued to new students after February 15, 2003, and it is giving schools until August 1, 2003, to reissue I-20s to their continuing students. Until then, the INS will continue to send the non-SEVIS I-20s to a contract firm for data entry into its prior database, STSC.
At the time of our original review, STSC contained approximately 72,000 active INS-approved schools. Accordingly, our report in May 2002 questioned whether the INS would be able to properly review and re-certify all of the schools prior to the congressionally-mandated full implementation date of January 1, 2003. The INS subsequently acknowledged to us that it believed the number of active schools in STSC was grossly overstated. According to its website, the INS estimates that 90 percent of the 72,000 INS-approved schools included in STSC were either inactive or no longer eligible for approval. The website states:
It's true that 72,000 schools have at one time or another participated in the foreign student program. The vast majority of those institutions are not currently active participants. Many are no longer in business. Many only participated on a one-time basis. Many were public elementary and middle schools that can no longer sponsor foreign exchange students…INS recently completed a study of the schools that sponsored foreign students during the past three years. We determined that 7,400 schools are actively involved in bringing foreign students to the United States.
Prior OIG Review Findings Relating to the Certification Process
Our original review was critical of the INS's process for certifying schools as eligible to accept foreign students, and identified the following deficiencies in the certification process:
Because of these deficiencies, we concluded that the INS's STSC database was unreliable, incomplete, and inaccurate. Our sample of 200 schools selected from the STSC database identified at least 86 that appeared to be inactive. We identified other schools that were approved and active but not entered into STSC. Additionally, we identified numerous instances where the school addresses and names had changed but were not updated in STSC. We noted in our original report that as a result of the lack of attention to the program, fraud had become pervasive.
In implementing SEVIS, the INS stated that it would address several of the deficiencies we identified by:
SEVIS School Certification Process
The INS decided to require all schools previously approved to resubmit applications. To facilitate this application review, the INS instituted a two-phased process for certifying schools. In the first phase, effective July 1, 2002, through September 24, 2002, the INS established a preliminary enrollment period for schools that met certain requirements. Schools could apply during this period if they were:
These schools were required to submit an electronic I-17 application through SEVIS.15 Senior INS officers assigned to headquarters adjudicated those applications submitted during the preliminary enrollment period. The INS deferred the required on-site review for these schools.16 According to the INS, it approved 1,418 schools during the preliminary enrollment period.
During the second phase, starting on September 25, 2002, the INS accepted applications from other schools. To ensure completion of the certification review by the mandatory compliance date, the INS in its interim SEVIS rule "strongly encouraged" schools to submit their I-17 applications by November 15, 2002. These schools also were required to submit an electronic I-17 application through SEVIS. Once the application was received, INS headquarters directed one of its three contract firms to conduct an on-site review. INS district office staff adjudicated these applications, using the on-site review reports submitted by the contract investigators and supporting documentation submitted by DSOs to determine whether or not to approve the school for access to SEVIS.
The INS also requires that schools be re-certified every two years. The INS does not intend to publish its rule implementing the 2-year re-certification requirement until after all schools are using SEVIS. According to the INS, SEVIS will automatically generate reminders to both the appropriate INS district office and school when the certification period is expiring.