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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
March 2003


This report assesses the Immigration and Naturalization Service's (INS) progress in implementing the foreign student tracking system, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Historically, the INS devoted insufficient attention to foreign students attending United States schools, and its paper-based tracking system was inefficient, inaccurate, and unreliable. In 1996, Congress directed the INS to develop an electronic system to collect information on foreign students, as well as the schools they attend.1 The INS began to develop an electronic information system to track foreign students, which was ultimately termed SEVIS.

After authorities discovered that several of the September 11 terrorists had entered or remained in the United States on student visas, the effort to improve the INS's monitoring of foreign students intensified. In October 2001, Congress directed the INS to fully implement SEVIS by January 1, 2003.2 In May 2002, Congress further expanded the INS's information reporting and tracking requirements, and established a transition program for issuing foreign student and exchange visitor visas pending full SEVIS implementation.3

Also in May 2002, the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a report on the INS's contacts with two of the September 11 terrorists.4 As part of that review, the OIG assessed the INS's efforts to implement SEVIS. We concluded that the INS's processes for certifying schools as eligible to accept foreign students were inadequate because: (1) the certification and monitoring of schools at the INS district offices were low-priority collateral duties; (2) INS adjudicators responsible for reviewing and approving school applications were not conducting adequate on-site reviews of schools; (3) INS adjudicators received no formal training and lacked clear guidelines relating to the certification process; and (4) the INS did not periodically review approved schools for continued eligibility. In addition, we questioned whether the INS would be able to meet the January 1, 2003, deadline for full implementation of SEVIS.

In September 2002, Congress held two hearings to examine the status of SEVIS implementation.5 At these hearings, a senior INS official testified that SEVIS would be technologically available to the schools as of January 1, 2003. In his September 2002 testimony before Congress, the DOJ Inspector General questioned whether the INS would be able to certify all the necessary schools by January 30, 2003. He also expressed concerns about the INS's ability to adequately train and oversee the contractors it hired to conduct on-site reviews of schools as a part of the certification process. The senior INS official expressed confidence in the ability of the INS's contractors to complete the on-site reviews, and the INS's ability to complete its certification reviews by January 30, 2003. However, she acknowledged that the INS would not be able to complete, by January 1, 2003, all of the SEVIS training planned for INS personnel and school officials.

Beginning in January 2003, we conducted this follow-up review to further assess the INS's progress in implementing SEVIS. We also examined the effect of the INS's transfer to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on the foreign student program and the implementation of SEVIS.

Results in Brief

This review found that the INS has made significant progress in implementing SEVIS. The INS is requiring previously approved schools to reapply and non-accredited vocational, language, and flight schools to undergo on-site reviews prior to providing them access to SEVIS. In addition, all INS offices and Department of State consular posts can access SEVIS.

However, despite this progress, we believe that SEVIS is not yet fully implemented. The INS asserts that SEVIS was fully implemented by January 1, 2003, the Congressionally mandated deadline, because it was technically available as of that date. However, as stated in our September 2002 testimony, we believe that full implementation includes not only technical availability, but also ensuring that sufficient resources are devoted to the foreign student program; ensuring that only bona fide schools are provided access to SEVIS; ensuring that schools are completely and accurately entering information on their foreign students into SEVIS in a timely manner; adequately training DHS employees and school representatives; and establishing procedures for using SEVIS data to identify noncompliant and fraudulent operations as well as following up when SEVIS data indicates fraud in a school's program. Our follow-up review determined that most of these actions have not yet taken place. In addition, while the SEVIS database contains information on newly enrolled foreign students, it will not contain information on all continuing foreign students until August 1, 2003.

Specifically, this follow-up review found:

We believe that the transfer of the INS to the DHS creates a significant management challenge for the foreign student program and SEVIS implementation. Responsibility for SEVIS implementation has shifted from a bureau responsible for providing immigration benefits (the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services) to a bureau responsible for enforcing immigration laws (the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Close oversight is required to ensure a smooth transition. In particular, due to the large number of schools that still need to be re-certified to use SEVIS, the individuals responsible for certifying schools must be identified quickly to receive sufficient training and guidance.

Once fully implemented, SEVIS should provide an effective mechanism for the INS to monitor both foreign students and the schools that they attend. SEVIS, however, will not be fully functional as a monitoring system until August 1, 2003, when its database will contain complete information on all foreign students currently attending United States schools and when it will be the sole system used to monitor foreign students. Moreover, we found other continuing problems in the full implementation of SEVIS, including serious deficiencies in the work performed by the INS contractors conducting the school on-site reviews. In addition, for SEVIS to be fully implemented and effective, the INS needs to train its employees to use SEVIS to identify potential fraud and noncompliance, better monitor the contract investigators responsible for conducting on-site reviews of the schools, and ensure that there is effective investigative and enforcement action taken against violators.

We have identified actions that we believe should be taken to ensure the effectiveness of monitoring foreign students attending United States schools. While a majority of these actions are consistent with the recommendations made in our original report, the INS either disagreed with the recommendation or has not yet fully implemented the recommendation. These actions include:

We believe these actions should be taken and are critical to ensuring that SEVIS is fully implemented, reliable, and effective.


  1. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, Public Law 104-208, September 30, 1996.

  2. USA PATRIOT Act, Public Law 107-56, October 26, 2001.

  3. The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2001, Public Law 107-173, May 8, 2002.

  4. The Immigration and Naturalization Service's Contacts With Two September 11 Terrorists: A Review of the INS's Admissions of Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi, its Processing of their Change of Status Applications, and its Efforts to Track Foreign Students in the United States.

  5. On September 18, 2002, the Immigration, Border Security, and Claims Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Implementation of the Foreign Student Tracking Program by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and on September 24, 2002, the House Subcommittees on 21st Century Competitiveness and Select Education held a hearing on Homeland Security: Tracking International Students in Higher Education - Progress & Issues Since 9-11.

  6. The INS allowed schools to apply for SEVIS access in two phases. In Phase 1, which ran from July 1, 2002, through September 24, 2002, only accredited schools that had been previously approved by the INS within the past three years could apply. All other schools had to wait to apply until Phase 2, which began September 25, 2002.