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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

May 20, 2002
Office of the Inspector General


  1. Introduction

    In this chapter, we discuss broader issues regarding the process by which foreign students gain admission to the United States and how the INS tracks and monitors them once they enter the United States. Our evaluation goes beyond the circumstances regarding Atta and Alshehhi. In this part of our review, which we began in November 2001 in response to our concerns about the tracking of foreign students that the events of September 11 highlighted, we focused on the INS's processes for admitting foreign students and for certifying schools as eligible to receive foreign students. We also evaluated the INS computer tracking systems for foreign students - the system that exists now as well as the system the INS is currently developing, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). We describe the deficiencies we observed in the INS foreign student program, the history and development of SEVIS, the problems in the foreign student program that SEVIS is designed to address, the deficiencies in the program that SEVIS will not address, and the implementation difficulties for SEVIS.

  2. Background

    The State Department is responsible for issuing student visas to foreign students who want to study in the United States. It is the responsibility of the INS, however, to determine which schools are entitled to accept foreign students, to inspect the documentation of persons arriving with student visas, to keep track of the entries and exits of foreign students, to know whether students are continuing to maintain their status, to facilitate the removal of students once their status ends, and to approve appropriate requests by nonimmigrants who are in the country through some other classification to acquire student status. Responsibility for each of these obligations is divided among several different offices, divisions, and branches within the INS, as well as among private contractors.

    The INS's foreign student program has historically been dysfunctional. The INS has acknowledged for several years that it does not know how many foreign students there are in the United States. The INS's foreign student program came under increased scrutiny after the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center when it became known that one of the terrorists was in the United States on an expired student visa. In April 1995, the Deputy Attorney General asked the INS to address a departmental finding that the INS needed to subject foreign students to thorough and continuing scrutiny, both prior to and during their stay in the United States. In September 1996, Congress also directed the Attorney General to develop and conduct a program to collect certain information on nonimmigrant foreign students and exchange visitors from approved institutions of higher education and designated exchange visitor programs. 109 In response to these directives and legislation, the INS plans to implement a new computer system, SEVIS, which is designed to collect information on full-time students and exchange visitors and their dependents.

    1. Scope and methodology of review

      In conducting this part of our review, we interviewed various INS Headquarters officials regarding current policies and procedures and SEVIS implementation, including officials from the INS's Office of Adjudications (formerly located within the Office of Programs), the Investigations and Inspections Divisions (within the Office of Field Operations), the Office of Information Resources Management (within the Office of Management), and the INS group titled "Strategic Information and Technology Development," which is responsible for coordinating between the policy groups and the technical groups in the INS. In the field, we interviewed intelligence research specialists assigned to the Enforcement Operations Divisions at the Texas and California Service Centers to obtain information on program fraud. We also interviewed the private consultant involved in developing SEVIS, the SEVIS liaison with the FBI, and representatives from the Department of State and the Department of Education. To obtain the schools' perspectives on SEVIS, we interviewed officials from several organizations that represent schools, specifically the Association of International Educators, the American Council on Education, and the College Career Association.

      During January and February 2002, we visited four INS district offices (Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco) and the associated international airports (Atlanta Hartsfield, John F. Kennedy, O'Hare, and San Francisco). At these locations we interviewed INS adjudicators, investigators, intelligence officers, and inspectors. At each location, we also reviewed the files of 50 vocational, language, and flight schools, randomly selected from the INS's database of approved schools, for compliance with INS regulations. 110 We also attempted to determine whether these schools were still active by searching through various Internet web sites, including sites maintained by accreditation organizations and federal and state educational approval agencies.

    2. Statistics on student visas

      The number of foreign students enrolled in United States schools has been steadily increasing over the years. During the 2000-2001 school year, 547,867 foreign students were enrolled in colleges and universities in the United States. This represents an increase of 6.4 percent over the prior year, the largest increase since 1980. Foreign students and exchange visitors, however, account for a relatively small percentage of the total number of foreigners who visit the United States, which in fiscal year 2001 totaled approximately 232 million.

      During fiscal year 2001, the State Department issued 319,518 F visas to students and their dependents for the purpose of attending academic or language courses, and 5,658 M visas to students and their dependents for the purpose of attending vocational or other nonacademic courses. During fiscal year 2000, 308,944 F visas were issued and 6,465 M visas were issued. During fiscal year 2001, the statuses of 28,880 aliens were adjusted to that of a student status. Of these, 27,848 adjusted their status to that of an academic or language student (F) and 1,032 adjusted their status to that of a vocational student (M). The primary original visa designations were for business (B-1), pleasure (B-2), or inter-company transfers (L-1). For fiscal year 2000, more than half of the F visas were issued to citizens of Japan, South Korea, China, India, and Taiwan. During this same period more than half of the M visas were issued to citizens of Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and Italy.

    3. The student visa application process

      An alien wanting to pursue full-time academic or vocational studies in the United States first applies to a school that has been approved by the INS as eligible to receive foreign students. After the student is accepted at the school, the school fills out and sends to the student both the student copy and the school copy of the I-20.

      The alien must then apply for a student visa at the nearest overseas United States consulate. The alien must present to the consular officer a current passport and photograph, both the student copy and the school copy of the I-20 for the school that the applicant plans on attending, and documentation to show that the applicant has the financial resources to pay for tuition and living expenses. The State Department's Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS) is queried to identify whether any negative information exists on the alien. The consular officer reviews the paperwork and, if necessary, conducts an in-person interview. 111 If approved, the consular office will issue a visa to the applicant that indicates the school that the student will be attending. 112

      Upon entering the United States, aliens present to the INS immigration inspector their passport containing the student visa, both the student copy and school copy of the I-20, and the I-94 (Arrival-Departure Record). 113 The immigration inspector reviews the I-20, checks to see if the passport contains the appropriate visa, and writes the I-94 admissions number on both copies of the I-20. The immigration inspector also determines the length of stay from the I-20 and records either "duration of status" if the student has an F visa or the dates for which the student is being admitted if the student has an M visa. The immigration inspector then separates the student copy and the school copy of the I-20, giving the student copy to the alien and keeping the school copy. The INS transmits the school copy of the I-20 to ACS, where it is data entered and eventually uploaded to STSC. 114

      Foreign students are permitted to leave the United States and return after a temporary absence. The regulations provide that to re-enter the country, the alien must be in possession of the I-20, and the second page must be properly endorsed with the signature of the designated school official (DSO) who certifies that the student is leaving temporarily but will be returning to school. Sometimes a foreign student will arrive at the port of entry with a missing or incomplete I-20. If, in the judgment of the INS immigration inspector, the student is otherwise admissible and no bad faith was involved, an alien may still be admitted even if the alien is missing the I-20 or has an incomplete I-20. In this circumstance, the inspector must complete INS form I-515, which requires the student to obtain the appropriate I-20 form or the proper signature on the form and to return to the INS with the documentation within 30 days.

      A flowchart depicting the student visa process is on the next page. [Not available electronically]

  3. Deficiencies in the Foreign Student Program

    In our review, we found many deficiencies in the INS's current foreign student program, which we describe in detail below. In sum, we found that because of the INS's lack of controls over the schools and students and lack of attention to this program, the foreign student program is highly susceptible to fraud, and the INS has incomplete and inaccurate data about the schools and students in the program.

    1. Inadequacies in the INS's process for approving schools

      Although federal regulations require that schools be certified before they can accept foreign students, the INS's review of schools consists primarily of a review of paperwork submitted by the school. We also found that INS often did not inquire further even when the paperwork raised obvious issues about the school's ability to meet the requirements for certification.

      1. Legal requirements for schools to be certified to accept foreign students

        Schools may be eligible to accept academic or language students (F visa category), vocational students (M visa category), or both. According to federal regulations, to be eligible to accept foreign students, a school must establish that:

        • It is a bona fide school.

        • It is an established institution of learning or other recognized place of study.

        • It possesses the necessary facilities, personnel, and finances to conduct instruction in recognized courses.

        • It is, in fact, engaged in the instruction of students in these courses.

        See 8 CFR 214.3(e)(1).

        The certification regulations do not state that the school must offer classes or instruction on a full-time basis. However, by definition under the INA, an academic student or a vocational student is one who is pursuing a "full course of study," and the regulations further define "a full course of study." For vocational students, the regulations provide that a full course of study is "at least eighteen clock hours of attendance a week if the dominant part of the course of study consists of classroom instruction, or at least twenty-two clock hours a week if the dominant part of the course of study consists of shop or laboratory work." 115 8 CFR 214.2(m)(9)(iii). Based on our interviews with INS officials and on our reading of the regulations as a whole, we concluded that a school must demonstrate that it is at least capable of offering a full course of study. The school then certifies to the INS on the I-20 with respect to each student that the student is actually enrolled in a full course of study.

        ["Student VISA Process as of July 2001" flowchart is not included electronically.]

        With respect to vocational schools (which include flight schools) and language schools, schools must meet the following requirements to obtain INS certification:

        • Be accredited, licensed, or otherwise approved by a state or federal agency.

        • Submit evidence that its courses of study are accepted as fulfilling the requirements for the attainment of an education, professional or vocational objective, and are not avocational or recreational in character. As evidence that the petitioner meets a vocational or professional objective, provide letters from three employers of the petitioner's graduates, on the employer's letterhead, stating the name of the graduate, the school of graduation, the position in which employed, and the period of employment.

        • Provide a copy of the school's catalogue and, if not included in the catalogue, a written statement describing the size of its physical plant; nature of its facilities for study and training; educational, vocational, or professional qualifications of the teaching staff; salaries of the teachers; attendance and scholastic grading policy; amount and character of supervisory and consultative services available to students and trainees; and finances (including a certified copy of the accountant's most recent statement of the school's net worth, income, and expenses).

      2. The I-17 petition and the INS's certification process

        In order to be permitted by law to have full-time foreign students in attendance at their schools, a university, college, or other school must be "certified" by the INS. 8 CFR 214.3(a)(1). To become certified, a school must submit a Form I-17 (Petition for Approval of School for Attendance by Nonimmigrant Students) and supporting documentation to the local INS district office. The school must indicate on Form I-17A the names of the DSOs who will be authorized to certify the foreign students who have been accepted to the school. Schools are required to notify the INS by submitting an updated Form I-17 when there are changes in ownership, address, school term, DSO, or the type of student for which the school was initially approved.

        Once the school submits the required documentation, the INS is required to conduct an interview in person and under oath of an authorized representative of the school. 8 CFR 214.3(d). This requirement may be waived by the INS district director.

        Each INS district has a designated "schools officer" who is responsible for certifying that schools meet these requirements, although the schools officer may have other responsibilities. We were informed that to certify schools, the schools officer reviews the school's petition and supporting documentation. If the schools officer has a concern about the documentation, the schools officer can request that the school provide additional evidence in support of its petition.

        Upon approval of a petition, the INS sends an approval notice to the school. In addition, the INS sends the I-17 to ACS. The school information is data entered by ACS, and this information is eventually uploaded into the INS's STSC database.

        If the schools officer denies the petition, the INS must notify the school in writing, state the reason for the denial, and inform the school of its right to an appeal.

      3. Inadequate resources devoted to school approval process

        We found that the INS devotes minimal resources to certifying schools and, as a result, does not adequately review schools to ensure that they meet the legal requirements for approval. We also found that the INS rarely re-reviews schools to ensure that they are still active and still meet the requirements for certification.

        At each of the four districts we visited, the schools officer was a collateral, low-priority duty, accounting for 5 to 20 percent of the officer's time. In the Atlanta and Chicago districts, an immigration inspector serves as the schools officer; in the New York and San Francisco districts, a district adjudicator serves as the schools officer. The immigration inspectors who performed this function spent most of their time performing inspection-related duties. The adjudicators who performed the function spent most of their time on adjudications functions that are considered "priorities" of the INS, such as naturalization applications and orphan petitions.

      4. Lack of in-person interviews and site visits prior to approval

        In addition, despite the regulatory requirement that the INS interview in person and under oath an authorized representative from the school prior to approving the petition, we found that this requirement seemed to be enforced fairly regularly in the 1970s and before that time, but these interviews no longer occur. All four INS officers responsible for approving schools that we interviewed stated that they did not require these interviews. We found that, at least in relation to vocational and language schools, the INS was relying solely on the documentation submitted by the schools without performing any independent verifications, such as checking to see if the school is in fact accredited or verifying information from independent websites.

        Although the regulations allow the District Director to waive the interview requirement, the regulations seem to contemplate that such a waiver would be granted on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, we did not find that the interview requirement had been waived in any district we visited. We believe that the lack of interviews stems more from the inability of the schools officers to devote sufficient time to the process, rather than a reasoned decision that interviews would not be useful and should be waived. Indeed, most of the schools officers to whom we spoke were not even aware that interviews were required.

        While the regulations do not affirmatively require the INS to conduct site visits to schools before approving I-17 petitions, site visits were conducted fairly regularly in the 1970s and earlier. Yet, few if any site visits have been made since then in the four district offices we reviewed.

        During our review, we selected a sample of 200 vocational, language, or flight schools from the INS's approved-schools database (STSC) that were approved by personnel in the INS's Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco districts. For these schools we reviewed the initial I-17 petition and required supporting documentation submitted by the school, any subsequent I-17s submitted by the schools, and any evidence contained in the file relating to INS actions taken.

        Several of the approved schools selected in our review appeared questionable to us and may not have been approved had a site visit been made. Some examples follow:

        • A vocational school was approved in February 2001 to teach press printing operations. The I-17 and supporting documentation provided by the school indicated that the school was neither accredited, licensed, nor approved by a federal or state agency; the school's brochure advertised that students would be doing "real" jobs for "real" customers and that students would be paid an hourly wage based on their grade. A site visit by the INS seems warranted to ensure that this is a school, as opposed to a business, operation.

        • A vocational school was approved in November 1990 to teach students to be wardrobe consultants, color designers, color coordinators, and personal stylists. The school's catalogue indicated that the course consisted of five class sessions, seven to eight days each, separated by two to three months of home study. The documentation to support that the course meets a vocational or professional objective (i.e., that at least three graduates of the school have obtained employment in the particular field of study) consisted of letters from one graduate who now owns the school and two graduates who are self employed as color consultants.

        • A vocational school was approved in April 1981 to teach students the music business. The school's Internet website, which promises to provide instruction on "How to be a successful singer, band, group, or manager," does not include any information on the physical location of the school. Based on the website, this appears to be an on-line school. This school claimed to be accredited, but a search of the accreditation organization's website revealed that the school was not currently accredited by the organization.

      5. Lack of re-certifications

        Federal regulations also provide that the INS may periodically review the approval of a school for continued eligibility. Regular re-certifications would help identify schools that are no longer active or schools that are committing fraud. Regular re-certifications would also ensure that the approved schools have maintained their accreditation, licensure, or approval status. According to INS officials, re-certification of schools is particularly necessary for certain types of schools - in particular, vocational, flight, and language schools - since these schools tend to be transitory. For example, we found based on our review of the files that in one re-certification effort, the INS learned that a school no longer existed. When the adjudicator contacted a flight school that had failed to respond to the INS's inquiries, she was told that the school no longer existed and that the owner, now living in Alaska, "lost his plane awhile back." In another file that indicated that a re-certification had been requested, the INS identified a language school that had been issuing I-20 forms using another school's INS-approval code number. The owner of the school had initially taught at the original school, which subsequently closed. When the owner received the re-certification notice, she admitted to the INS what she had been doing. Her explanation was that she had submitted the paperwork for INS approval but, since the process was taking so long, she decided to continue to use the old code number.

        Based on our review, we determined that the last nationwide re-certification was conducted by the INS in 1983 (when the STSC system was implemented). In addition, none of the INS districts we visited had been performing regular re-certifications. In fact, only one of the districts, San Francisco, had conducted any re-certifications since 1983, and this re-certification effort occurred around 1990.

        We also reviewed the files of the 200 schools in our sample to try to determine whether those schools were still active or accredited. Based on preliminary checks we performed, including comparing the schools against a list of closed schools maintained by the U.S. Department of Education, we concluded that at least 86 of the 200 schools - or 43 percent of the schools - were either no longer active or likely no longer active. Of the 114 active schools in our sample, nine schools were no longer accredited by the original accrediting organization they cited when they had completed their initial I-17 petition.

      6. Review of Huffman Aviation file

        As part of our investigation into the delayed notification of Huffman Aviation about the student status of Atta and Alshehhi, we obtained from the INS's Miami District its file containing the documentation submitted by Huffman Aviation requesting certification. We found, based upon our review of the file and our interviews with officials from Huffman Aviation, that had the INS conducted a site visit, it is likely that the school would have been denied certification. Our review of Huffman Aviation documents leads us to question whether its students were enrolled in a "full course" of studies, that is, over 22 hours per week of course work since the primary course of study was non-classroom work. In addition, we question whether Huffman Aviation should continue to be eligible to issue I-20s for foreign students to obtain student visas and changes of status.

        Huffman Aviation submitted its original I-17 petition on or about May 22, 1989. Only the first page of Huffman's original I-17 was in the file we obtained from the INS, although the file did contain additional supporting documentation. 116 The President of Huffman Aviation had submitted an affidavit that stated, "All students are required to attend classes daily and are tested on a weekly basis." In addition, a syllabus indicated that obtaining a private pilot's license would require 40 hours of flight time and 15 hours of "Ground school and briefings" and that the course could be completed in "about 45 days if you are flying every day."

        On June 2, 1989, the INS responded to Huffman and requested additional information, including "evidence that the school offer[ed] a 'Full Course of Study.'" The INS directed Huffman to the definition of "full course of study" as set forth in the publication used by schools to assist in filling out the I-17 petition. Huffman submitted a response on October 2, 1989, and included some of the additional information requested, but it did not submit anything related to the "full course of study" request for information.

        On November 20, 1989, the INS wrote to Huffman, again requesting additional information, including "an addendum to your response to Question #19 that lists all courses of study and the time necessary to complete each course of study." On December 21, 1989, Huffman submitted additional information to the INS in support of its petition, indicating that among the documents being submitted were "the relevant pages of our syllabus that demonstrates that we do have a full course of study and the hour requirements."

        The INS responded on February 8, 1990, and for the third time stated that additional information was requested with respect to, among other things, the school's ability to offer a full course of study:

        Please read the attached definition of 'Full Course of Study' VERY CAREFULLY. A 'Full Course of Study' for a school such as Huffman Aviation means a minimum of 18 to 22 clock hours of attendance per week.[117] Neither the syllabus nor the addendum that you submitted indicate that your fulltime students attend the school for 18-22 clock hours per week. Please submit an addendum to Question 19 [on the I-17 petition] that lists each course of study and the time necessary to complete each one... If the school does not offer a 'Full Course of Study' according to this definition, the Immigration and Naturalization Service cannot approve the school for attendance by nonimmigrant students.

        The addendum should be in this format:

        Commercial Pilot   500 hours (300 Hours ground school
        200 hours flight time)
          20 Weeks at 25 Hours per Week

        The flight school then submitted a letter dated February 20, 1990, that stated in the format requested the breakdown for each "full course of study" that Huffman offered:

        Private Pilot   106.5 hours (66.5 hours flight training)
        (40 hours of ground school)
          4 weeks at 27 hours per week

        The breakdown for the "Instrument Rating" course showed that it could be completed in 3 weeks at 26 hours per week and that the "Commercial Pilot" course would be completed in 20 weeks at 22.5 hours per week.

        On June 22, 1990, the INS approved Huffman Aviation's I-17 petition.

        Based on the available evidence, we do not believe that Huffman Aviation offered or currently offers a "full course of study." We interviewed Rudi Dekkers, the Chief Executive Officer and President of Huffman Aviation. He told the OIG that his courses required no formal classroom study and that the weekly flight time would not encompass 18 or more hours a week. Indeed, Dekkers told us that flying 18 hours or more per week would be "too much." Although the information Huffman provided in its third response to the INS stated in a conclusory fashion that it was meeting the INS's requirements, the supplementary material that it had submitted with its application showed that it was not. For example, as stated above, Huffman submitted a syllabus indicating that obtaining a private pilot's license requires 40 hours of flight time and 15 hours of "Ground school and briefings," and that the course could be completed in "about 45 days if you are flying every day." Based on our calculation, 55 hours over 45 days constitutes an average of 8.5 hours per week, far less than the 22 hours per week required by the regulations for a "full course of study" for vocational schools that offer primarily non-classroom studies. In addition, the INS file that we reviewed contained a Huffman Aviation document labeled "Commercial Pilot Training Course Outline." 118 Like the course syllabus, this document stated that obtaining a private pilot's license would require 40 hours of flight time and 15 hours of ground school and seven weeks to complete the course. The document also stated that obtaining a "Commercial Multiengine Instrument" rating required 25 hours of flight time and 15 hours of ground school, and it stated "Full-time student, completion in four weeks." By our calculation, this would require approximately 10 hours of instruction per week.

        Moreover, in its I-17 petition submitted in 1999, Huffman Aviation indicated in response to Question 19, which asks for the courses of study and time necessary to complete each, that its response was "Total time estimate: approx. 6 months." In addition, Huffman's petition stated that the school's sessions were not based on semesters or quarters but that "students may start at any time." In response to the question asking for dates of sessions, Huffman stated "[o]ur students register at all times of the year. Their programs are organized to their individual needs." 119

        In addition to the requirement that Huffman Aviation must offer a "full course of study," it is also required to certify on I-20s that each student is actually pursuing a full course of study. Huffman certified that Atta and Alshehhi were pursuing a full course of study and that the dates for the course were September 1, 2000, until September 1, 2001. But we found, based on Huffman's records, that Atta and Alshehhi never logged the requisite 22 hours per week of instruction.

        A follow-up site visit to Huffman, based on the schools officer's concerns about the school's ability to offer a full course of study, would have provided the INS more accurate information with which to make its determination about Huffman's certification. Such a site visit never occurred. 120

    2. Lack of security features on I-20 forms

      INS investigators and adjudicators consistently reported that they believed that I-20 fraud is prevalent. The INS Inspector's Field Manual alludes to this concern, stating, "Fraudulently issued Forms I-20 are not uncommon."

      Once a school is certified by the INS to accept foreign students, the INS gives the school blank I-20 forms to provide to foreign students as proof that they have been accepted by the school. In addition, schools are permitted to obtain I-20 forms from private vendors who produce the software to generate the forms on a computer. The current I-20 form has no serial number or unique stamp. As a result, the form lacks security features and is relatively easy to counterfeit. Also, many schools that were once approved by the INS, but which have either had their approvals withdrawn or have closed, still have a supply of I-20 forms.

      As previously noted, foreign students may leave and re-enter the country, but they must have the signature of a DSO on the student copy of the I-20, signifying that the alien is still a student and plans to return to the school after a temporary absence. However, immigration inspectors have no way to ascertain the authenticity of the DSO endorsements. I-20 holders who are no longer active students could easily forge subsequent DSO endorsements, enabling them to re-enter the country.

      An official with the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which conducts investigations of visa fraud, told the OIG that falsifying I-20s is the most common method by which student visa fraud is committed. Investigators in all four INS district offices we visited told us that school employees with access to these forms have fraudulently issued I-20s to aliens for a fee to enable them to enter the United States.

      Although fraud with I-20s is easy to commit, it is difficult to detect. I-20s lack security features, and the State Department does not have access to INS databases to confirm the information listed on the I-20, such as whether the school is authorized to issue I-20s. Primary immigration inspectors at the POEs also do not have access to the STSC database to confirm any information on the I-20 form.

    3. Inadequacies in collecting information concerning student status

      To obtain student visas or student status, foreign students must be enrolled in a full course of study, and to be considered in status, students must remain enrolled as a full-time student. With respect to academic and language school students, federal regulations specifically provide that "[t]he student is considered to be maintaining status if he or she is making normal progress toward completing a course of studies." 8 CFR 214.2(f)(5). Because students must remain in school full time to be entitled to remain in status, the INS needs to know when students are taking classes part-time, quit, fail, or do not show up for school.

      To receive INS certification, schools must agree to notify the INS when a student terminates attendance at the school or is no longer enrolled in a full course of study. However, the only affirmative reporting requirement is that the school notify the INS of terminations or other lapses in attendance when the INS provides the school with a list of students to identify. The INS has not provided this information to schools since 1989.

      In addition, even when schools voluntarily report information about students, the INS has no way to collect or record this information. Such information is not systematically recorded in STSC or in any other INS database. Schools in the past have attempted to report to the INS students who were accepted by the schools and who were issued I-20s but who failed to show ("no-shows"). However, the INS was so overwhelmed by the reports of "no-shows" that it directed schools to no longer report this information.

      Since the INS does not collect information in STSC about the status of students, currently the only way for an INS immigration inspector at a port of entry to verify that a returning student is still in active status is to check that the I-20 presented by the student contains a current endorsement by the school's DSO. Federal regulations do not require that this endorsement occur within any specified time before the student's departure, and the instructions on page 4 of the I-20 state that the endorsement is valid for six months. 121 The immigration inspectors we interviewed said that, as a normal practice, they accept any DSO endorsement made within the year prior to the foreign student's entry. This means that the inspector has no way of checking the authenticity of the DSO signature or knowing if students terminated their studies after the date of the signatures. The signatures can easily be forged, and the inspector has no way of detecting the fraud.

    4. Deficiencies in the Student and Schools System (STSC) database

      The STSC is the INS database that records information about the schools approved to issue I-20s, the foreign students who have enrolled in approved schools, and changes in identifying information about the schools or students that are provided to the INS by the submission of a new I-17 or I-20. As noted above, the I-20s and I-17s are sent to ACS, a private contractor in London, Kentucky, for data entry, and this information is eventually uploaded into STSC.

      We found that, for several reasons, the information in STSC is unreliable and inaccurate. First, as stated previously, the INS does not collect certain information about students, such as when they quit, fail, or do not show up at the school from the beginning. STSC information about the schools is equally unreliable because, as noted previously, the INS makes little effort to assess whether certain schools are still accredited or even in existence. In some instances, we found that while information in the hard copy file indicated that a school was no longer in operation, there was no evidence that the INS provided this information to ACS, the contractor that handles the data entry. We also found that the INS has failed to provide to ACS updated information, such as new addresses and name changes of schools, when that information was submitted to the INS on a new I-17 by the schools.

      Therefore, not surprisingly, STSC is riddled with inaccuracies. As noted previously, in our review of 200 files of schools we selected from STSC's list of "active" schools, 86 of those schools appeared to no longer be in operation. 122 In addition, of the 114 active schools we reviewed, STSC showed incorrect addresses for 40 schools and incorrect names for 16 schools. Of the 40 schools with incorrect addresses, we found documentation in eight of the files that showed that the INS had been informed of the new addresses. Of the 16 schools with incorrect names, we found documentation in four of the files that showed that the INS had been informed of the school's name change. We found no evidence in any of the files that ACS had been informed of any of these changes. 123

      We also found that processing errors contributed to the inaccurate information in STSC. Two of the schools in our sample, which STSC indicated were authorized to issue I-20s, were never approved and therefore should never have been in the STSC system. When a schools officer denies certification of a school, no forms are sent to ACS; however, when an approved school is de-certified, the INS sends an I-702 form to ACS for data entry. Based on our review of the schools' files, we determined that the INS schools officer for both schools mistakenly sent an I-702 to ACS for data entry. It appears that since the schools were not in the system and could not therefore be withdrawn, a record for the schools was created in STSC for the schools based on the information on the I-702. While at the district offices, we also randomly selected files of schools that had been approved by the district office within the past two years and checked whether these schools had been entered into STSC. Of the 38 files we selected, 14 (37 percent) did not appear in the STSC database. We did not investigate whether this information was not in STSC because the INS failed to provide the I-17 to ACS or because ACS failed to enter the information.

      The consensus among the schools officers, immigration inspectors, and investigators we spoke with during our site visits was that the STSC system was unreliable and therefore not useful. At all four districts we visited, the schools officers instead used alternate systems to track schools in their districts. Two had developed their own databases, and two relied on paper records, such as index cards.

    5. Lack of enforcement

      According to investigators we interviewed in the four district offices we visited, conducting investigations of students and schools for visa fraud has always been a low priority. Investigations personnel stated that with only 2,000 investigators nationwide, the INS did not have enough investigative resources to devote to students and schools. According to these investigators, their top priorities prior to September 11, 2001, were to apprehend criminal aliens, disband large manufacturers of fraudulent documents, dismantle anti-smuggling organizations, and stop worksites from employing illegal aliens. Foreign students and schools were generally only investigated if they fit in one of these categories. Since September 11, terrorism has become the top priority. Additional duties that investigators have recently been assigned include tracking down the approximately 300,000 aliens who have outstanding deportation orders against them and conducting background checks on airport employers and employees.

      Foreign students who are no longer in status because they quit school or never showed up for school are considered overstays and can be removed from the United States. As discussed previously, the INS does not systematically collect this information about the students from the schools. Moreover, even when the INS has the information, it generally takes no action. Some schools report information about "no-shows" and "termination" to their local INS district offices. In the district offices we visited where an adjudications officer was the "schools officer," information reported by schools was provided to investigative personnel for entry into the INS's National Automated Information Lookout System (NAILS). But the investigative personnel did not enter the information into NAILS. 124

      Fraud can also be committed by

    6. Lack of training for designated school officials and INS schools officers

      In addition to signing the I-20 certifying that students have been accepted to a full course of study and have provided proof of ability to pay, Designated School Officials (DSOs) are responsible for representing schools in all matters related to foreign students. Their duties include, among other things, complying with INS recordkeeping and reporting requirements; monitoring student activities and reporting violations to the INS, such as failure to maintain a full course load or engagement in unauthorized employment; and notifying the INS of material changes in the school's program, accreditation, and level of education offered.

      Currently the INS has no formal, mandated training program for DSOs. While the larger school associations, such as NAFSA, provide such training, it is geared towards DSOs at public and private colleges and universities, not vocational and language schools, who, according to INS officials, need more training. 125 During our site visits, INS district office school adjudicators commented on the need for such training. They noted that the DSO function rotates frequently at schools and, as a result, many DSOs are untrained and unaware of regulations. As a result, they said, violations of the law frequently occurred.

      For example, the DSO who certified the I-20 forms for Atta and Alshehhi for use in their applications for change of status told the OIG that at that time she had just recently been assigned as the DSO and that she had been provided no training. 126 As a result, she said she was unsure of what she was doing and that either Atta or Alshehhi directed her on the proper procedures for filling out the forms.

      INS personnel in district offices assigned to approve and monitor schools also are not provided with any formal training. Instead, they learn on the job. Many to whom we spoke stated that they were not sure what they were supposed to be looking for when they certified schools. In the district offices that we visited, the schools officers appeared unaware that regulations provided that the INS should conduct an in-person interview with a school representative before approving an I-17 petition. They also commented about the lack of clarity in the regulations and the lack of INS guidelines for the approval process. The INS informed us that it is now in the process of developing certification procedures.

  4. Student and Exchange Visitor System (SEVIS)

    The INS is currently developing a new computer system to more closely track information about foreign students and the schools in which they are enrolled. This system, the Student and Exchange Visitor System (SEVIS), is also designed to collect information about aliens enrolled in a State Department-approved exchange visitor program. 127 In this section of the report, we first describe the history of SEVIS, including the INS's latest schedule for implementation, and the visa process as it is designed to work under SEVIS. Next, we analyze SEVIS, including the deficiencies in the foreign student program that SEVIS is intended to address, some operational problems in the foreign student program that SEVIS will not address, and the impact of the implementation schedule for SEVIS.

    1. History of SEVIS

      After the INS's foreign student program came under criticism when it was discovered 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, the director of the Department of Justice's Office of Investigative Agency Policies sent a memorandum to the Deputy Attorney General citing concerns regarding possible terrorism and alien criminal activity. This September 24, 1994, memorandum specifically mentioned the need to subject foreign students to thorough and continuing scrutiny before and during their stay in the United States. On April 17, 1995, the Deputy Attorney General asked the INS Commissioner to address this issue. This led to the formation of an INS task force in June 1995 to conduct a comprehensive review of the F, M, and J visa processes. Besides the INS, the task force included members from the State Department and the United States Information Agency, and experts in the administration of international student programs.

      The resulting task force report, issued on December 22, 1995, identified some of the same deficiencies in the foreign student program we discussed in this chapter of the report, including deficiencies in the tracking and monitoring of foreign students; weak and ineffective data systems; the ineffective district office practice of assigning student/schools responsibilities as a collateral duty; the lack of a system to monitor or audit schools; and the lack of clarity in school approval requirements. The task force recommended, among other things, that the INS collect and monitor information electronically about foreign students through the issuance of student registration cards that would contain biometric identification information through fingerprints and that students be required to notify the INS whenever they changed their student program, such as transfers, change of major, or other event.

      On September 30, 1996, Public Law 104-208, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) was enacted. It directed the Attorney General, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to develop and conduct a program to collect certain information on nonimmigrant foreign students and exchange visitors from approved institutions of higher education and designated exchange visitor programs. The information to be collected included the alien's name, address, date of birth, visa classification, student status, course of study, academic disciplinary actions taken, and termination dates and reasons. Schools had already been required by the INS since 1983 to manually collect this data; IIRIRA mandated that the information was to be collected electronically where practicable. IIRIRA also mandated that the INS implement the system by January 1, 1998, use a phased-in approach (starting with students and exchange visitors from at least five countries, with full expansion within four years), and establish a fee of less than $100, which would be paid by the foreign students and collected by the schools, so that the program would be self-funded.

      In June 1997, the INS developed a computer program as a pilot project, the Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students (CIPRIS), to test the concept of an electronic reporting system. CIPRIS was tested at the Atlanta Hartsfield Airport, the INS Atlanta District Office, the Texas Service Center, and 21 educational institutions in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The most significant difference between the old process and CIPRIS was that schools provided information about themselves and their students directly into INS computer systems instead of the INS relying on information from forms being data entered after the fact by contractors. In addition, the new process, which was later changed, was intended to involve the issuance of student registration cards that would contain additional identifying information about the student such as fingerprints and photographs that were collected by the schools. 128

      CIPRIS, and later SEVIS, encountered significant opposition from several associations representing schools, particularly the Association of International Educators, which represents 8,000 foreign student advisors at 2-year and 4-year public and private institutions; the American Council on Education, which represents 1,800 college presidents at 2-year and 4-year public and private institutions; and Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, which has 14,000 members. Schools objected to foreign students being subjected to monitoring; to schools being subjected to the burden of collecting fingerprints and photographs of students for the registration cards; and to schools being required to collect the processing fee from students, most of whom would still be in their home countries when the fee would have to be collected.

      The CIPRIS pilot program officially ended in October 1999. However, the program continued after that date as a prototype pending the development of a nationwide system. Around the time that the CIPRIS program ended, the INS decided to abandon the idea of student registration cards and the collection of fingerprints and photographs. The INS decided to drop the biometric card requirement and instead use a "bar code" to be placed on the I-20 form issued to the student.

      According to the INS, the CIPRIS pilot system was designed from its inception as a "throw-away" program whose purpose was just to test the feasibility of electronic reporting. In July 2001, the name of the program was changed to SEVIS to distinguish between the two systems, which, although they functioned similarly, were substantially different in design. Schools participating in the CIPRIS program were provided with separate computers to operate CIPRIS; SEVIS participants would access the system through the Internet with user passwords.

      In December 1999, the INS published a proposed regulation setting the foreign student processing fee at $95. The INS received over 4,000 comments to the regulation. On February 22, 2000, twenty-one U.S. Senators wrote to the INS requesting a postponement of the fee rules. The INS, the Department of State, and school representatives submitted proposed legislative changes for fee collection to Congress in April 2000. Public Law 106-396, enacted on October 30, 2000, required that foreign students and exchange visitors pay the fee directly to the INS (through the Attorney General) prior to applying for a visa, rather than requiring schools to collect the fee and transmit it to the INS.

      Since the INS was relying on fee collections to fund SEVIS, the delays in establishing the fee process affected the timing of the implementation of SEVIS. And despite the changes in fee requirements, the school associations continued their opposition to SEVIS. On August 2, 2001, with the support of the school associations, H.R. 2779 was introduced to halt the implementation of SEVIS altogether. 129 NAFSA issued a press release supporting the proposed bill and stating that the implementation of SEVIS would: (1) send an unwelcoming message to international students and exchange visitors by singling them out for monitoring; (2) be costly for schools since its reporting requirements would require overhauls of university information systems; and (3) place an unacceptable financial burden on applicants.

      The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks drew renewed attention to foreign students. On October 26, 2001, Public Law 107-56, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (the USA PATRIOT Act) was enacted. Section 416 of this law mandated that SEVIS be fully implemented before January 1, 2003.

      The USA PATRIOT Act also required SEVIS to include information on the foreign student's port of entry and date of entry, and it re-defined schools required to be in SEVIS to include flight schools, language training schools, and vocational schools. 130 The law provided $36.8 million in funding for SEVIS implementation. Because of this funding, the Office of Management and Budget required the INS to delay implementation of any student fees until the appropriation has been expended.

      In contrast to their prior opposition, both NAFSA and the American Council on Education (ACE) issued public statements after the events of September 11 supporting SEVIS implementation. We contacted representatives of NAFSA, ACE, and the Career College Association, which represents 950 schools that provide vocational programs, to discuss SEVIS with them. All expressed support for SEVIS. While they described some concerns related to the monitoring of students, they said that school associations have accepted the inevitability of implementing SEVIS and are now focused on opposing the fee and the proposed method of collection. 131

    2. How SEVIS will work

      According to the INS, SEVIS will electronically record data about schools and foreign students, primarily by schools entering information directly into SEVIS or by batch processing that will occur through interaction between a school's computer systems and SEVIS. Schools will select the method they want to use. The INS will not have to rely on schools and students submitting forms to the INS. Since SEVIS will be Internet-based, schools that enter information directly into SEVIS will not be required to obtain additional hardware or software. 132

      1. Data to be collected in SEVIS concerning foreign students and exchange visitors

        SEVIS will collect data on all full-time foreign students (F and M visa status) and exchange visitors (J visa status) and their dependents. Each student and exchange visitor's SEVIS record will include the following:

        • Form I-20 and Form DS-2019 information.

        • Personal information, including name, place and date of birth, country of citizenship, and current address in the United States.

        • Whether the student is full- or part-time.

        • Date the student's studies began.

        • Number of course credits completed each year.

        • Transfers and extensions of course of study.

        • Degree program and field of study.

        • Information on practical training and other employment, including beginning and ending dates.

        • Date studies ended and the reasons why.

        • Date the visa was issued and the visa classification.

        • Academic disciplinary actions taken against the student due to criminal convictions.

        • Current academic and program status of the student.

        • Dependent names and current addresses.

      2. Data to be collected concerning schools

        Once a school completes an I-17 petition, SEVIS will record the following data concerning schools approved to issue I-20s:

        • Identifying information from the schools.

        • Names of DSOs.

        • Whether the school is an academic school, vocational school, or language school or is authorized to accept foreign students in all of the above visas categories.

        • Programs for which the school is approved to issue I-20s.

        • Licensing or accreditation status.

        • Degrees offered.

        • Average number of classes, students and teachers.

        • Annual costs of schooling.

        • Whether the school is approved to issue I-20s or whether that approval has been withdrawn.

      3. SEVIS procedures

        1. School certifications

          Schools will be able to complete and submit their request for certification (Form I-17) electronically to their local INS district office. A petitioning school will initially be provided with a temporary password to enable the school to enter the I-17 information electronically. SEVIS will not accept incomplete I-17 applications or information that falls outside of certain parameters. An electronic alert would notify the INS district office that the petition has been filed. The petitioning school, however, will still have to mail the necessary documentation to support the petition. 133 The adjudicator at the INS district office would then conduct a review to determine whether the school meets INS's criteria. Once the school's petition and supporting documentation has been reviewed, the adjudicator will note in SEVIS whether the school has been approved. If the school is approved, the DSOs at the school will be provided with logon IDs and passwords, which will enable them to access SEVIS. Schools will also be able to electronically update their I-17s. 134

          Each DSO will be provided with a unique logon ID, which will help promote accountability. The INS is also considering establishing a DSO certification program. All DSOs would be required to take training before receiving their SEVIS passwords.

          According to INS officials, schools will also be required to be re-certified after a set period of time. According to INS Headquarters officials, vocational and language schools will be required to be re-certified more frequently than public schools, colleges, and universities. The INS had not yet determined when or how often schools will need to be re-certified.

          Under SEVIS, once the re-certification time frame is determined, the schools' logon IDs will be set to expire unless the required re-certification occurs. E-mail alerts will be sent to the schools several months before the expiration date to remind them to re-certify. The INS will also be able to decertify a school that violates INS regulations by electronically invalidating the school's password. 135 This will prevent the school from issuing any additional I-20s and will therefore effectively exclude them from the program.

        2. Issuance of I-20 to foreign student

          Under SEVIS, when an alien applies to the school and is accepted, the school will, as before, be responsible for issuing an I-20. But rather than requiring the school to type the relevant information onto a hard copy of the student and school copies of the I-20, SEVIS will generate an electronic I-20. The DSOs will enter the I-20 data directly into SEVIS, if the real-time method is used. Under the batch method, schools will enter information for the forms directly into their own data entry systems, which will communicate with SEVIS. Once the applying student's information is entered into SEVIS by the school, the system will generate an I-20 form that contains a bar code number that is unique to that student. The school will send this form to the student, as it currently does. 136

        3. State Department access to SEVIS

          Foreign students will present this bar coded I-20 to their local consulate, along with the other required documentation, when applying for a student visa. After the visa is issued, the student's name, address, passport number, and other information will be captured in CLASS when the consular officer scans the bar coded I-20 into CLASS. 137 The date of issuance of the visa and the location of the consulate office issuing the visa will be uploaded from CLASS to SEVIS, which will then update the student's SEVIS record to indicate the location where the visa was issued and the date the visa was issued.

          Before issuing the visa, the consular officer will have access to basic SEVIS information through CLASS. Consular officers will also be able to access the full SEVIS record through the Internet, if they need to do so. In this way, the consular officer will be able to verify the legitimacy of the I-20. 138

        4. Inspectors' access to SEVIS and updating of student's record that student has entered the country

          Upon entering the United States, the student will present the bar coded I-20 to the INS immigration inspector. The INS plans for the primary immigration inspector to scan or data enter the bar code, which will then access the unique number for the I-20 to ensure that it is valid. If the I-20 is not valid or there is some other indication of a problem, the inspector will be notified, and the student should be referred to secondary. The secondary immigration inspectors will be able to directly access the full SEVIS records. According to INS officials, the technical process to achieve the record checking and problem notification has not yet been determined, although it is anticipated that SEVIS will be integrated with IBIS (Interagency Border Inspection System).

          This process will also be designed so that the student's SEVIS record will automatically be updated to indicate the student's port of entry and the date of entry when the inspector swipes the I-20.

        5. Updating of student's record once student enrolls in school

          Once the student registers at school, the school will update the student's SEVIS record either by directly entering the information into SEVIS or by the school's computer system automatically notifying SEVIS of the student's enrollment once the school's computer system has been updated. If the student's SEVIS record does not reflect a registration within 30 days of the student's entry into the United States, an e-mail alert will automatically be sent to the school. Thereafter, if the student does not register and SEVIS is not updated within a set period of time after the notification (date unknown), the student will be considered out of status and removable. The system is designed so that the I-20 will then be invalidated electronically, and the student's record will show that the student is out of status. 139

          While the student is attending school, the school will be responsible for updating SEVIS with the required data relating to the student's status, such as when the student quits school or otherwise terminates attendance, changes majors, or changes addresses. Eventually, the INS plans to transfer to SEVIS information related to changes of status maintained by the service centers, information about reinstatements, and information about employment maintained by the district offices. The INS also plans to integrate SEVIS with the entry-exit system currently under development, which would enable the SEVIS record to be updated with the student's movements in and out of the United States. 140

          The INS and other authorized users of SEVIS, will be able to extract information from the SEVIS database. Authorized users will be provided with passwords to enable them to access SEVIS to search for information on specific students. The INS's Office of Information Resources Management can also generate specific reports from SEVIS for users. Analyses of SEVIS data can be performed using any of the parameters contained in the SEVIS record.

          We were told that the INS is planning on generating periodic reports of students who fail to show up at school, but the INS has not yet determined who in the INS will receive these reports, how frequently the reports will be generated, or what action will be taken as a result of the reports. However, SEVIS access through logon IDs and passwords can be provided to INS district offices for investigations and enforcement use, allowing real-time queries and reports on demand.

    3. Schedule for implementation

      The USA PATRIOT Act mandates that SEVIS be fully implemented prior to January 1, 2003. The INS currently plans to have SEVIS available to real-time users on July 1, 2002, and to batch users sometime in the fall of 2002. In addition, the INS plans to have overseas consulate posts and the INS ports of entry connected to SEVIS by December 2002. However, few users will be actually using SEVIS in 2002. While SEVIS will be available in 2002, the INS has recently proposed regulations that will require SEVIS to be fully operational and actually in use by January 30, 2003.

      Currently, the only schools that will be able to access SEVIS once it is available will be schools that used the previous CIPRIS system and a small number of schools in the Boston area that are part of a pilot program. They have been converted to SEVIS and are currently using SEVIS to issue I-20s. However, as discussed in detail in Section V C 1 of this chapter, the INS has issued proposed regulations that would require all schools (approximately 72,000) that want to apply for SEVIS access to be re-certified by the INS before they can use SEVIS and begin issuing I-20s. The proposed regulation provides for a cutoff date of January 30, 2003, by which schools that have not been re-certified will be unable to issue I-20s. 141

      For SEVIS to be fully functional, the INS must determine how the district offices will record in SEVIS the approval of student reinstatements and student employment authorizations. In addition, the service centers, which approve changes of status for students, must also be able to access SEVIS. Recently, the INS moved its planned implementation date for linking its service centers and district offices to SEVIS from the spring of 2003 to January 30, 2003, to comply with the proposed regulation.

  5. OIG analysis of SEVIS

    Once fully implemented, SEVIS will enhance the INS's data collection abilities greatly. However, the tracking and monitoring of foreign students will continue to be significantly flawed, unless the INS devotes the necessary resources to ensuring that the schools are providing accurate information; ensures that the schools are all properly re-reviewed before access to SEVIS is provided; ensures that a process is in place to analyze the information captured by SEVIS; ensures that adequate investigative resources are made available; and requires schools to be re-certified at reasonable intervals. In addition to any technical difficulties that may be faced in implementing SEVIS, the INS also faces major obstacles to implementing SEVIS before the current date proposed - January 30, 2003. Below we describe deficiencies in the foreign student program that SEVIS will address, the problems that SEVIS will not address, and the implementation difficulties that SEVIS faces.

    1. Deficiencies that SEVIS will address

      SEVIS as designed will improve data collection, reduce fraud, enhance data analysis, and enhance enforcement capabilities. Specific improvements are described below.

      1. Improved data collection

        Since I-17 petitions and I-20 forms will no longer be completed and processed manually, the INS's data records for students and schools under SEVIS should be more accurate. Information on schools applying to the INS for permission to accept foreign students will be entered directly into SEVIS by the schools. In addition, once approved, schools will be able to directly enter any changes to their records. Moreover, SEVIS will require schools to be re-certified at specified intervals, which means that school records will be updated by the INS even if the school does not update its own records. With respect to student information, I-20s will not be generated unless all necessary information is provided, which means that SEVIS should contain more complete information.

        The INS will also be able to collect information about the status of students, such as whether the student is still a full-time student, where the student lives, and the type of program in which the student is enrolled. The INS will not need to rely on this information being provided in paper format, since schools will update student records individually or through batch processing.

        Schools will easily be able to identify when a change of status has been approved because the student's SEVIS record will be updated by the INS service centers once processing is complete. SEVIS will eliminate the current manual process in which the paper I-20 is returned to the school once approval has been granted. In addition, schools will be able to determine through SEVIS when and where a student entered the United States.

      2. Improving fraud detection and deterrence

        SEVIS will enhance the INS's ability to detect and decrease fraud in the foreign student program. First, because schools will be able to generate I-20s only through SEVIS, only INS-approved schools with access to SEVIS will be able to generate I-20s. Accountability over DSOs will be improved, since each DSO will be provided with a unique password, enabling the INS to identify who is performing certain transactions. The INS will be able to electronically de-certify a school that violates program requirements by invalidating the school's password, thereby preventing the school from continuing to issue I-20s. SEVIS will also require schools to be re-certified at specified intervals. If this re-certification does not occur, SEVIS will automatically cancel the school's passwords.

        With respect to students, the fact that I-20s will be bar coded will greatly enhance the INS's ability to detect fraud. Because I-20s will be generated with a bar code only through SEVIS, students will have more difficulty generating fraudulent I-20s. In addition, State Department consular officers and INS immigration inspectors will be able to determine the validity of the I-20 presented by an alien because I-20s generated by SEVIS will contain a unique bar code that will be scanned at overseas consular posts and United States ports of entry. Students who enter the United States after their course has begun will be identified as a "no-show" through SEVIS at the port of entry and can be refused entry. In addition, any I-20s not used by the student will be invalidated, preventing others from fraudulently using them. Inspectors also will be able to identify through SEVIS whether a returning student is in active status and will thus be able to deny entry to students who are not in active status.

        SEVIS will assist in the detection of fraud engaged in by students at academic and language schools where students are permitted by law to stay in the United States as long as they are making progress toward their degree program. Investigators will be able to search SEVIS to identify students who have been in the same program for a lengthy period of time or identify schools that have a significant number of students who have been in school longer than the typical degree program requires.

    2. Deficiencies SEVIS will not address

      Despite the improvements anticipated with the implementation of SEVIS, there are many problems in the INS's student program that SEVIS will not address.

      For example, the INS plans to re-approve all of the schools currently authorized to issue I-20s before they will be able to access SEVIS, as well as require regular re-certifications of the approved schools in the future. But as previously discussed, the INS does not currently devote adequate resources to approving schools and reviewing previously approved schools. As a result, schools officers do not conduct site visits before approving schools, and schools are rarely re-reviewed once they are approved. To properly certify, re-certify, and monitor schools, full-time INS personnel devoted to managing the foreign student program will be needed. In addition, the process for approving schools that will be eligible to receive foreign students will still be a manual process. Unless schools officers are required to conduct on-site visits and follow up questionable information submitted by schools, many deficiencies that currently exist will continue.

      Also, as discussed earlier in this report, DSOs are often not knowledgeable about their responsibilities and the requirements concerning students' eligibility to obtain student visas. The INS is currently considering developing an on-line DSO certification training program, which DSOs would be required to take before receiving a SEVIS password. This initiative would help to improve the process, but it will need to be implemented well before January 30, 2003, when the INS plans to implement SEVIS fully, and the INS will have to provide continual training because DSOs change frequently.

      While improved data collection will enhance the student program, the information will only be useful in the detection of fraud if the INS devotes resources to monitoring the information and investigating instances of potential fraud. Although the SEVIS database will help identify potential fraud, such as schools with a large number of students with invalid I-20s or students with invalid I-20s having visas issued from the same city, the INS has not determined who, if anyone, would perform these analyses. To fully use SEVIS's capabilities, the INS needs to assign personnel and establish policies and procedures to address this analytic function. Moreover, as discussed previously, enforcement to uncover student and school fraud has been a low priority and investigative resources devoted to this issue have been limited. Although better information will be available to investigators on student no-shows and terminations, it is not clear that the INS will use this information any more fully than it has in the past.

      The INS officials we interviewed consistently reported that the success of SEVIS depends on the accuracy of the data in the system. To date, the INS has not formulated any concrete plans for conducting or requiring independent verifications of the data that the schools enter into SEVIS. The INS has had discussions with officials in the Department of Education and the Department of Veterans Affairs to determine whether their auditors could include sample verifications of SEVIS data into audits that these organizations routinely conduct of schools. However, this would only cover schools that receive federal funds from those two agencies. We believe independent reviews conducted at regular intervals are essential to ensure that schools have proper internal controls to deter and detect fraud and that schools enter foreign student information into SEVIS completely, accurately, and timely. 142

    3. SEVIS implementation difficulties

      1. Ensuring that approved schools are re-certified prior to the January 30, 2003, implementation deadline

        Because the INS's current database, STSC, is inaccurate, incomplete, and outdated, the INS is requiring all INS-approved schools to reapply and be re-certified by INS district offices before allowing the schools access to SEVIS. The INS recently issued proposed regulations imposing a cutoff date of January 30, 2003, by which schools that have not been re-approved will be unable to issue I-20s.

        As a result, approximately 72,000 INS-approved schools will need to be re-certified by January 30, 2003. The INS plans to start the re-certification process this summer, but it is still in the process of determining how to do this. As of the end of April 2002, re-certification procedures had been developed but not yet finalized. Once the procedures are finalized, they must be published as proposed regulations in the Federal Register, with a 60-day comment period. In addition, the INS still has to assign and train personnel to perform the re-certifications and notify all the schools of the need and procedures for re-certification.

        The INS is currently proceeding as if all 72,000 re-certifications will be completed in time for the January 30, 2003, implementation date. This would require the INS to approve approximately 8,000 schools per month if it began the re-certification process in early May 2002. It appears unlikely that the INS could meet such a demanding schedule.

        First, the INS has to ensure that all schools are notified of the re-certification requirement. Since our review found that not all INS-approved schools had been entered into the STSC system and many of the school addresses on the STSC are incorrect, sources other than STSC are necessary for notification. Although school associations have been diligent about publicizing SEVIS, many schools, particularly the smaller language and vocational schools, are not members of these associations.

        In addition, full-time adjudicators and investigators will be needed to re-certify so many schools. Currently, re-certifications are performed by adjudicators and inspectors as a collateral duty. The INS must also develop adequate written guidelines on conducting the re-certifications and provide adequate training to those responsible for performing the re-certifications and making site visits. Our review found that none of these important steps had been completed.

        Although the re-certification process will be time consuming, it is essential for the INS to ensure that SEVIS is implemented properly, not just quickly. Any attempts to shortcut the re-certification process will result in potentially fraudulent schools retaining access to the system. At the same time, we believe that the INS should acknowledge that not all of the schools can be re-certified before January 30, 2003, and provide for this inevitability, including deciding whether schools without approval will be permitted to continue issuing paper I-20s to foreign students. 143

      2. Collecting the processing fee as required by statute

        Congress mandated that the SEVIS program be self-funding. The INS had planned to charge foreign students and exchange visitors a $95 processing fee. As discussed earlier, school associations strongly opposed both the imposition of a fee and the method by which the fee was to be collected. Initially, the schools were required to collect the fee on behalf of the INS. In 2000, IIRIRA was revised to transfer the collection responsibility to the INS, and the fee was required to be collected before the student was issued a visa.

        The INS initially requested that the State Department collect the fee on behalf of the INS. The State Department already has effective procedures in place to collect fees overseas. For example, the State Department imposes a machine-readable visa processing fee on visa applicants. Payment of this fee can occur in several ways, depending on the consular post. At some locations, the visa applicant pays the fee at the consular post. At other locations, the visa applicant pays the fee at a designated bank, obtains a receipt, and presents the receipt at the consular post as proof of payment when applying for a visa.

        However, the State Department has objected to collecting the fee on behalf of the INS. The State Department official who serves as the SEVIS liaison to the INS gave us various reasons for the State Department's objections, including reciprocity concerns (other countries could, in turn, charge United States students a similar processing fee to study overseas), workload burdens (although the INS indicated willingness to pay the State Department an administrative fee), and legal concerns (only certain government agencies have the authority to maintain bank accounts overseas). 144

        In lieu of having the State Department collect the fee, the INS is requiring applicants to make payments either by mail to a bank or on-line. All payments need to be made in United States currency. School association representatives told us that, although they philosophically oppose the imposition of a fee on foreign students, they are more concerned about the method of collection. Both the NAFSA and the ACE representatives we contacted expressed concerns about the length of time it would take to process the payment by mail (the bank has said it will take approximately four weeks) and the lack of accessibility of some overseas students (particularly those in developing countries) to the Internet, credit cards, United States currency, or reliable mail systems. They see this as a barrier to students attending schools in the United States. NAFSA prefers to have the State Department collect the fee, and it does not believe the State Department has provided any credible reason not to do so. We also believe that requiring the State Department to collect the fee, while permitting it to retain an appropriate fee for doing so, would be the most efficient and equitable solution.

  6. Conclusion

    The INS's foreign student program has suffered from a lack of attention for many years, and as a result, the INS lacks accurate data about the schools that are authorized to issue I-20s, the students who obtain student visas and student status, the current status of those students, and whether fraud is being perpetuated in the foreign student program. The INS's implementation of SEVIS will help solve some of the problems in the foreign student program, but it will not cure all of the problems in the INS foreign student program. The INS must not only implement an effective electronic method tracking foreign students, it must also devote adequate resources to managing the entire foreign student program.

    We believe that it is not likely that the INS will be able to fully implement SEVIS by January 30, 2003, as it contends it will. For full implementation of SEVIS, all schools must be re-certified; inspectors, adjudicators in the districts and the service centers, consular officers, and DSOs at a minimum must be trained how to use SEVIS and what to do in the event that the new system is not fully functioning; and students currently in the system with valid I-20s must be accounted for in SEVIS. If, as we believe it will be, full implementation of SEVIS is delayed beyond January 2003, the INS will continue to operate a system in which it knows little about the schools and students that participate in the foreign student program.

    Even after SEVIS is implemented, we believe the INS must devote adequate resources to managing critical aspects of the foreign student program in addition to SEVIS and its operations. This requires full-time, well-trained personnel to carry out the important function of approving and re-certifying schools. The INS should establish detailed procedures and guidance to ensure that schools are properly approved, and re-certified and de-certified when necessary. The INS must also decide which office will be responsible for analyzing the information collected in SEVIS and provide that office with guidance about its role and how analyses should be completed to effectively monitor foreign students and schools. Similarly, the INS must devote resources to verifying the accuracy of information entered into SEVIS. Also, once potential fraud is identified, the INS must devote resources to investigate that fraud. If the INS does not devote sufficient personnel to address the approval and re-certification of schools, to analyze the data collected in SEVIS, and to investigate potential fraud, the impact of SEVIS will be minimal.


  1. Foreign participants enrolled in State Department-approved educational and cultural exchange programs must first obtain a J-1 visa to enter the United States. There are approximately 1,500 program sponsors, including universities, summer camps, hospitals, and private foundations. There are 13 program categories, including summer work/travel, high school students, trainees, au pairs, short-term scholars, professors and research scholars, college and university students, teachers, specialists, alien physicians, international visitors, professors, and camp counselors. During fiscal year 2001, the State Department issued 299,959 "J" visas. Although the exchange visitor program operates similarly to the foreign student program, the primary difference is that the State Department, not the INS, is responsible for approving and monitoring the sponsors of exchange visitor programs.
  2. We focused on these types of schools because, according to INS officials, they are apt to be less stable and present a higher risk for fraud.
  3. The State Department determines on a country-by-country basis when interviews are required. Applicants are informed of the criteria that must be met in order to complete the process without an interview. In some countries, interviews are required in almost all cases. In all instances, consular officers can in their discretion require an interview if the application appears questionable or if information in CLASS indicates that follow up is needed.
  4. Student visas are foil stickers that are placed in the appropriate page in an alien's passport. Unlike the B-1/B-2 visa, the student visa does not have a period of validity. The length of stay is determined by the immigration inspector at the POE and is written on the school copy and the student copy of the I-20.
  5. An alien who wants to enter the United States as an exchange visitor must be accepted to an approved exchange visitor program. Once an alien is accepted to an approved exchange visitor program, the sponsor provides the alien with a Form DS-2019 (Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status). When applying for a visa, the alien presents the consular officer with the IAP-66 as proof of acceptance into the program. When entering the United States, the alien also presents the IAP-66 to the immigration inspector who, in a similar fashion to the I-20 form, separates the IAP-66 form, giving one copy to the alien and keeping one copy. The INS copy is sent to the Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, for data entry into its database system, EVIS (Exchange Visitor Information System).
  6. As noted previously in this report, the immigration inspector also stamps the I-94 with the admission information and separates the I-94 into two parts. The departure portion of the Form I-94 is given to the student; the arrival portion of the I-94 is mailed to ACS where it is data entered and eventually uploaded into NIIS.
  7. As discussed in other parts of this report, aliens wanting to attend school on a part-time basis can enter the United States with a B-1/B-2 visa if their school attendance is "incidental" to a primary pleasure purpose.
  8. A new I-17 filed in August 1999 was also in the file. Huffman Aviation indicated on the I-17 that it was submitting the I-17 to "update" Huffman's records. Although it was an update and not a new petition, the INS, as part of its process, reviews and approves these types of I-17s like new I-17s. This I-17 petition was approved on October 1, 1999.
  9. As discussed earlier in this report, 18 hours per week attendance is required for vocational students whose primary course of study is classroom work and 22 hours per week attendance is required for vocational students whose primary course of study is lab or shop work, i.e., non-classroom work.
  10. From the condition of the file, we were unable to determine when the INS received this document.
  11. The INS did not request additional information before approving this I-17 petition.
  12. While Huffman Aviation may not have been entitled to issue I-20s to foreign students to obtain student visas, Atta and Alshehhi could have continued to pursue the pilot's license program on a part-time basis while in the United States on their visitor visas, since INS practices consider such study as being consistent with the purpose of a visitor visa. For a discussion of our concern about the INS's lack of information about nonimmigrants taking classes on a part-time basis, see Chapter Eight.
  13. The regulations provide that students are permitted a temporary absence from the United States and define temporary absence as five months or less for F-1 students. 8 CFR 214.2(f)(4). The INS's Operations Instructions define temporary absence for M-1 students also as five months. OI 214.2(m).
  14. Of the 86 schools we determined were no longer active or were likely inactive, we found five cases in which there was a completed form in the file indicating that the INS had determined that the school was no longer approved to issue I-20s. This happened when the INS had received an I-20 from ACS that had been returned to ACS as undeliverable, because there was no such address for the school, or because the school had informed the INS that it was no longer in operation and wanted to withdraw its petition. This information is usually recorded on an I-702 form (School Violations and Approval Review) and sent to ACS for data entry and uploading into STSC. Based on our review of these five files, we were unable to determine when or if these forms were ever sent for data entry, since they were undated. We were told by personnel at one of the district offices that they did not complete these forms but instead simply noted in the file that the school was being withdrawn.
  15. The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2001, which was approved by Congress and recently signed by the President, requires the Attorney General to provide the Secretary of State with a list of all institutions certified to issue I-20s no later than 30 days after the enactment of the Act. This list is intended for use by consular officers to verify that persons applying for student visas are submitting I-20s issued by INS-approved schools. Given the inaccuracies in the INS's STSC database, we believe that any list of approved schools would not be reliable.
  16. NAILS is one of the law enforcement databases used by inspectors at the ports of entry to determine whether possible derogatory information about an alien exists.
  17. NAFSA was originally called the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors. In May 1990, the name of the organization was changed to "NAFSA: Association of International Educators." The acronym was retained despite the name change.
  18. We also noted in our review of the INS's Huffman Aviation I-17 file that it did not contain an I-17 petition listing this school coordinator as a designated school official as required by the regulations.
  19. As noted previously, currently the State Department maintains a database called the Exchange Visitor Information System (EVIS), which functions similarly to STSC. Paper forms are data entered into EVIS. Once SEVIS is introduced, the INS also will be responsible for maintaining all of the information about foreign exchange visitors in SEVIS, although the State Department will remain responsible for approving the sponsors that participate in the foreign exchange program.
  20. Although IIRIRA mandated that the INS collect information about foreign students attending only colleges and universities (not vocational or language schools), the INS decided to include all foreign students in its new program.
  21. The House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary referred H.R. 2779 to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims on September 10, 2001. No further action was taken and, as discussed in this chapter, Congress later passed legislation strengthening SEVIS.
  22. As noted above, Congress also recently approved the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2001, which formally amends IIRIRA to require the INS to collect additional information about students, information which the INS already plans to collect once SEVIS is implemented. The Act also requires the State Department to obtain additional information from student visa and exchange visitor applicants and requires the INS to conduct periodic reviews of schools, which we discuss in more detail later in this chapter. It also establishes requirements affecting the State Department, INS-approved schools, and the INS for dealing with foreign students that must be implemented within a specified number of days of the Act and that must remain in effect prior to the full implementation of SEVIS. The transitional program requirements for the INS include notifying schools when a foreign student has entered the United States - which the INS currently accomplishes by sending an I-20 to the school - and, as discussed earlier in this chapter, providing the State Department with a list of INS-approved schools.
  23. We address the issue of fee collection in greater detail in Section V C 2.
  24. For the schools that will transfer information electronically through their computer systems, some adjustments to their computer systems will be necessary for the communication with SEVIS.
  25. SEVIS will not eliminate the INS's need to maintain paper files and to track hard copies of documents. The INS will have to ensure that it can match the supporting documentation to the electronic I-17 information if the supporting documentation is not submitted with an I-17. It is unclear whether the INS will keep a paper record of the I-17 in a file for each school.
  26. Unlike the former process that required schools to submit a new I-17 petition that had to be re-approved by the INS, schools will be able to make certain changes to their I-17 information, such as new DSOs, new addresses, or new school names, without approval from the INS.
  27. According to the INS, it had not yet decided how it will carry out this process of decertifying or invalidating a school, such as whether the district office will have the authority and capability to terminate the school's password and access to SEVIS or whether the district office will be required to make a recommendation that would then be carried out by INS Headquarters or some entity other than the district office.
  28. Since this process will create the record regarding the student, there will no longer be a "school copy" of the I-20s collected by inspectors at POEs and transmitted to ACS for data entry.
  29. The technical means for accomplishing this process have not yet been finalized.
  30. Consular officers will be provided passwords to access SEVIS through the Internet.
  31. Since students can be accepted to more than one school, students can be in possession of multiple I-20s. When obtaining a student visa, the student is required to select a specific school. The visa records the name of the school the student is planning to attend. Once a visa is issued to the student for a particular school, all extraneous I-20s will be invalidated once CLASS uploads to SEVIS. The other I-20s should also be invalidated once the student fails to enroll in the schools that were not selected by the student. This will not delete the record, but will make the extraneous I-20 unusable.
  32. Since IIRIRA mandated the development of an automated entry and exit control system, the INS has been working on an automated entry-exit system that would involve the electronic recording of entries and exits rather than the collection of the paper I-94s that are later data entered into NIIS. The Immigration and Naturalization Service Data Management Improvement Act of 2000 (PL 106-215) amended IIRIRA to set new deadlines, establish reporting requirements, identify those authorized to access the system, authorize funding, and establish a task force to implement the new entry-exit system. The new deadlines for the entry-exit system vary depending on the type of POE. Full implementation is required by December 31, 2005.
  33. The January 30, 2003, implementation date does not pertain to exchange visitor program sponsors. The Department of State will issue separate regulations establishing a compliance date for all exchange visitor programs.
  34. As noted earlier, the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2001 requires the INS to conduct periodic reviews of INS-approved schools to ensure they are in compliance with record-keeping and reporting requirements.
  35. After reviewing the draft report, the INS in its written response signed by the INS Commissioner stated, "I acknowledge the challenge of implementing this system under our proposed timelines, but unlike your conclusion, I am confident the INS's dedication to this significant effort will result in us accomplishing our January 30, 2003 goal." The INS did not provide any specifics as to how it would reach its goal.
  36. In another situation, however, the State Department must collect a fee from visa applicants and transmit it to another agency. The USA PATRIOT Act, enacted in October 2001, requires the FBI to provide the State Department with access to certain criminal databases contained in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). A Notice of Proposed Rule published in the February 25, 2002, Federal Register indicates that when a consular officer determines that a visa applicant may have a criminal record indexed in NCIC, the applicant will be required to submit fingerprints and pay a specified processing fee to the State Department. This fee, along with the fingerprints, will be forwarded by the State Department to the FBI.