Glenn A. Fine
U.S. Department of Justice
U.S. House of Representatives
Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims
"The INS's Implementation of the Foreign Student Tracking Program"
September 18, 2002
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Mr. Chairman, Congresswoman Jackson Lee, and Members of the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims:
I appreciate the opportunity to appear before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims to discuss
the Immigration and Naturalization Service's (INS) implementation of its system to monitor foreign students studying in the United States.
This morning, I will first discuss the findings from our May 2002 report entitled, "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." Along with analyzing the INS's contacts with two September 11 terrorists and the INS's handling of their change-of-status forms, our report examined how the INS admits and monitors foreign students studying in the United States. The report also analyzed in detail the INS's new tracking system for foreign students, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).
My statement will discuss areas in which we believe the INS has made significant progress toward implementing SEVIS. It also will offer the Office of the Inspector General's (OIG) perspective about areas in which the INS needs to focus additional efforts to improve its implementation of SEVIS and its monitoring of foreign students.
In sum, our review of the INS's existing foreign student program found numerous deficiencies, including an antiquated, inadequate data collection and monitoring system. The INS's implementation of SEVIS will help solve some of the problems the INS has had tracking foreign students. SEVIS can reduce fraud in the program, improve data collection and analysis, and enhance the INS's enforcement capabilities. The INS has stated that it will fully implement SEVIS by January 30, 2003, and during the last several months it has expended significant efforts to achieve this goal.
However, while SEVIS will be technically operational by that date, we have concerns about whether the INS will be able to complete all the steps necessary to ensure full and proper implementation by January 30. Our concerns include whether the INS will assign and train sufficient numbers of dedicated staff to review and approve the schools' applications to access SEVIS, whether it will conduct sufficient and thorough site visits of schools applying to accept foreign students, whether it will adequately train school officials to use SEVIS, and whether it will train INS inspectors and investigators adequately to use SEVIS to detect fraud.
Before discussing these concerns, I will first summarize the findings from our report and the INS's progress in implementing SEVIS.
- EVALUATION OF THE INS'S FOREIGN STUDENT PROGRAM
Our May 2002 report described why the INS mailed forms notifying a Florida flight school that two September 11 terrorists had received approval to change their immigration status from "visitors" to "students" six months after the terrorist attacks. The mailing of these forms raised questions about the INS's handling of change-of-status applications for Atta and Alshehhi and their three admissions into the United States in 2000 and 2001. It also raised serious concerns about the INS's monitoring and tracking of foreign students in the United States.
Our review found that the INS's adjudication of Atta's and Alshehhi's change-of-status applications and its notification to the flight school were untimely and significantly flawed. First, the INS took more than 10 months to adjudicate the two men's applications, which were submitted in September 2000. As a result, Atta's and Alshehhi's applications were not adjudicated until July and August 2001, respectively, well after they had finished their flight-training course at the Florida flight school. Second, the INS adjudicator who approved their applications did so without adequate information, including the fact that Atta and Alshehhi had left the country two times after filing their applications, which meant they had abandoned their request for a change of status. And third, even after the INS took 10 months to approve the applications, the notification forms were not sent to the Florida flight school for an additional 7 months, until March 2002, 6 months after the attacks of September 11. This additional 7-month delay occurred because the INS failed to adequately supervise a contractor who processed the documents.
As part of our review, the OIG evaluated the INS's processes for admitting foreign students and for certifying schools as eligible to receive foreign students. We also evaluated the INS tracking systems for foreign students - its prior paper-based system, and SEVIS, its new Internet-based system. I will now summarize the results of these aspects of our review.
- Background on the Student Visa Process
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 once in this country, to facilitate the removal of students once their status ends, and to approve appropriate requests by aliens 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 working with the INS.
Historically, the INS has not handled these responsibilities adequately and has acknowledged that it does not know how many foreign students are in the United States. In addition, the INS lacks accurate data about the schools that are authorized to issue I-20s (the INS form that contains identifying information about the school and the prospective student, including the course of study for which the student has been accepted and information about the student's financial resources). In addition, the INS lacks accurate data on individuals who obtain student visas, their current status, and whether fraud is being perpetuated in the foreign student program.
For example, an important component of the INS's foreign student program is the school certification process, which allows the INS to ensure that a school is legitimate and not simply an operation designed to assist foreigners to enter or remain in the country fraudulently. Yet, INS district offices assign the responsibility for approving and recertifying schools to adjudicators or inspectors only as a collateral, low priority duty accounting for a small percentage of their time. We found that these inspectors and adjudicators - called "schools officers" - do not review adequately the schools' applications for certification or recertification. In addition, the INS rarely conducts site visits of schools prior to or after certification and relies primarily on written representations from the schools.
In addition, INS investigators and adjudicators consistently reported to us that they believe that fraud with I-20 forms is prevalent. The current forms contain few security features and are relatively easy to counterfeit. Schools receive multiple blank forms, and many schools that are no longer approved to issue such forms still retain a supply of I-20s.
Moreover, the INS's current database for recording information about the status of foreign students and schools relies on information from paper forms that are supposed to be sent to the INS and uploaded into a database. But the information that is inputted into this database is incomplete, unreliable, and riddled with inaccuracies. For example, of 200 schools we reviewed from the database's list of active schools, we found that 86 appeared to no longer be in operation. Of the 114 schools still in operation, 40 had incorrect addresses and 16 had incorrect names. Two of the schools in the database were not even approved to issue I-20s and should never have been in the system.
- Implementation of SEVIS
Our May 2002 review concluded that SEVIS will help solve many of the problems the INS has had in the past tracking foreign students. For example, SEVIS will improve the data collection on students and schools. Schools will no longer be required to fill out forms that must be mailed to the INS and then sent by the INS to a contractor for data entry. Instead, the schools will enter information about students directly into SEVIS or into their own computer systems that will then upload the data to SEVIS. Through SEVIS, the INS and schools also will be able to identify more easily when a student's change of status has been approved because the student's SEVIS record will be electronically updated by the INS service centers once processing is complete. In addition, SEVIS will eliminate the current manual process in which the paper I-20 is returned to the school after adjudication of the change-of-status form. Furthermore, the INS and schools will be able to determine easily through SEVIS when and where a student entered the United States.
SEVIS also should help the INS detect I-20 fraud by schools and students. Only INS-approved schools with access to SEVIS will be able to create I-20 forms for students. The INS will be able to decertify automatically schools that violate program requirements by invalidating the school's password, thereby preventing the schools from issuing I-20s. Since I-20s will be generated only through SEVIS, fraudulent or expired I-20s will be more difficult to use. In addition, any I-20s not used by the student can be invalidated automatically through SEVIS, preventing others from fraudulently using them. INS investigators also will be able to collect useful information by analyzing SEVIS data, such as identifying schools that have significant numbers of students who have been admitted longer than typical degree programs require.
Yet, despite the improvements anticipated with SEVIS, we found problems in the INS's student program that implementation of the SEVIS computer system alone will not solve. We concluded that unless the INS devotes sufficient resources and effort to implement and use SEVIS effectively, many of its current problems in tracking and monitoring foreign students who come to the United States to attend school would continue to exist. First, the INS still must manually review and approve the applications of schools seeking certification or recertification to enroll foreign students. To properly certify, recertify, and monitor schools, we recommended that the INS assign full-time personnel to these tasks. Unless on-site visits are conducted and the INS follows up on questionable information submitted by schools, many current deficiencies will continue to exist.
We found that the INS did not have any formal, mandated training program for the officials at each school who have the responsibility for complying with INS record-keeping and reporting requirements, for monitoring violations of student requirements to the INS, and for notifying the INS of material changes in the schools' programs, accreditation, and level of education offered. While school associations provided some training, particularly for the larger public and private universities, the training was not geared toward smaller schools. INS officials told us that many school employees who deal with the foreign student program were inexperienced, untrained, and unaware of INS regulations.
For example, the designated school official at Huffman Aviation, the Florida flight school at which Atta and Alshehhi received flight training, told the OIG that she had only recently been assigned to the job and had received no training when she certified the men's change-of-status forms. As a result, she said she was unsure what to do with Atta and Alshehhi's I-20 forms and that either Atta or Alshehhi had directed her on the proper procedures for completing the forms.
Like the designated school officials, we found that INS personnel assigned to approve and monitor schools also had not been provided formal training. We learned that many employees are uncertain as to what they are supposed to be looking for when certifying schools. These INS employees also commented on the lack of clarity in the regulations and INS guidelines for the approval process. We recommended that the INS develop training programs for both INS schools officers and designated school officials.
While SEVIS should improve data collection, the data will be useful only if the INS monitors and analyzes the information and investigates instances of potential fraud. At the time we released our report, the INS had not determined who, if anyone, would perform these analyses. Enforcement to uncover school fraud historically has been a low priority at the INS, and investigative resources devoted to this issue have been limited. Although better information will be available to detect fraud, it was not clear to us if the INS will use this information any more fully than in the past.
In our report, we also raised concerns about the INS's ability to implement SEVIS fully by January 30, 2003, as required by statute. The INS indicated that it intended to recertify all of the approximately 70,000 schools currently authorized to issue I-20s.
Our report offered 24 recommendations to help address the problems that the Atta and Alshehhi cases highlighted and that our review of the INS foreign student program revealed.
- ASSESSING THE CURRENT STATUS OF SEVIS IMPLEMENTATION
- INS Progress
In late July, the INS formally responded to the 24 recommendations contained in our report. Since that time, the INS has continued to make significant strides toward implementing SEVIS. In this section, I highlight some of the positive steps the INS has taken to improve its efforts to monitor foreign students studying in the United States.
- School Certifications
The INS is making substantial efforts to meet the school certification deadline. On July 1, 2002, the INS published its first certification rule, which permitted schools meeting certain requirements to enroll preliminarily in SEVIS. These schools will not require site visits prior to certification. This category consists of what the INS considers "lower-risk" schools, such as public schools and accredited colleges and universities. Schools in the low-risk category must be accredited by an organization recognized by the Department of Education and must have been approved by the INS for the past three years to accept foreign students. For purposes of this rule, the INS determined that flight schools should not be considered low risk.
We believe that this approach is a reasonable strategy as long as the INS independently verifies the schools' accreditation. During our May 2002 review, we found that 9 of 114 active schools sampled were not accredited, despite such claims on their applications.
The INS plans to publish a second certification rule that will cover schools that do not fall into the first category. The schools in this latter category will require site visits prior to approval.
- Foreign Student Program Manager
The INS concurred with our recommendation to appoint a foreign student program manager to coordinate, and be accountable for, immigration issues affecting foreign students. At the time of our review, the foreign student program was handled by many different INS offices, resulting in inconsistent policies, lack of accountability for the program, and a failure to carefully and systematically consider the impact of any changes on the program. The INS responded to our report by centralizing responsibility for its foreign student program with the INS Executive Associate Commissioner for Field Operations and assigning a senior field manager to lead the program.
- Site Visits
The INS is planning to conduct site visits of all schools enrolled in SEVIS. While lower risk schools are being allowed to preliminarily enroll in SEVIS without an initial site visit, the INS plans to visit each of these schools within the next two years. For the higher risk schools, the INS is making site visits a prerequisite for enrollment in SEVIS. This approach is an important step because it helps prevent fraudulent schools from obtaining access to SEVIS.
- Periodic Recertifications
The INS plans to require schools to undergo recertifications every two years. During our review, we found that a primary reason for the inaccuracies in the INS's schools database was the lack of such periodic recertifications. As a result, the INS was not aware of schools that had closed and, consequently, it continued to maintain these schools on its active database. We also noted during our review that the INS's last school recertification - conducted in 1983 - identified numerous instances of fraud. For example, one school that was not approved by the INS was accepting foreign students using the code from a defunct school. We believe periodic recertifications are critical to ensuring the accuracy of SEVIS records.
- The OIG's Continuing Concerns
Despite the substantial efforts made by the INS, we continue to believe that full implementation of SEVIS is unlikely by January 30, 2003, based on the amount of work that remains to be accomplished. By full implementation, we mean that schools will be recertified and inspectors, adjudicators, consular officers, INS officials, and designated school officials will be trained on how to use SEVIS and what to do in the event the system is not functioning. Our ongoing concerns have more to do with the process of certifying school eligibility, training, and the INS's dedication of adequate resources to the effort rather than with SEVIS's technical implementation. I will now discuss several of our continuing concerns.
- School Certifications
While the INS has made significant strides with respect to school certifications, it has not yet published its rule pertaining to certification of flight, vocational, language, and other "higher-risk" schools, all of which will need site visits prior to certification. The INS intends to have contract investigators using INS-developed checklists perform these site visits. Although the INS has issued a contract solicitation to hire the investigators, site visits cannot begin until the INS publishes the rule. The longer the delay in publishing this rule, the less likely the INS will be able to complete all of the necessary school certifications by the January 30, 2003, deadline.
The draft INS rule that we reviewed also requires schools to submit an application at least 75 days prior to the January 30 SEVIS implementation date to provide the INS sufficient time to conduct a site visit so that schools will be able to issue I-20s on an uninterrupted basis. It strikes us as unlikely that the INS will be able to sufficiently review and approve all of the anticipated applications within this short time frame. However, because the INS believes it will meet the January 2003 deadline, it did not agree with our recommendation to prepare an alternative plan in the event schools are not recertified by the deadline.
In order to monitor the INS's progress on this issue, we have asked the INS for additional details on its approach, including: (1) information on how the INS intends to fund the contract investigators; (2) alternative plans for funding the contract investigators or otherwise performing the on-site reviews in the event the Office of Management and Budget does not approve the imposition of an investigations fee on the schools; (3) details on who within the INS will be responsible for approving the certification applications and for monitoring the contract investigators; (4) details on any quality control reviews to be done by the INS of the site visits conducted by the contract investigators; and (5) a timeline showing target dates for completing the certification process.
In our May 2002 report, the OIG recommended that the INS ensure that audits are conducted of certified schools to determine whether proper internal controls are in place and whether SEVIS data is being entered completely, accurately, and timely. The INS concurred with this recommendation and informed the OIG that the primary mechanism for conducting these audits would be on-site visits by the contract investigators. The INS also said that it would identify the need for additional audits through its analytical reviews of the activities of approved schools.
We reviewed the draft checklist developed by the INS for use by the contract investigators and noted that for each school the INS plans to provide the names of five students for the investigator to verify while on site. (The checklist offers no details on how this verification is to be accomplished.) In our opinion, review of five files per school may not be sufficient; rather, a better sample might be based on a specified percentage of foreign students enrolled in each school.
Further, we are concerned with the INS's response to this recommendation because it is unclear whether the contract investigators who will conduct the site visits will be qualified to perform an audit that involves an assessment of internal controls and a sampling of records. The Department of Education already requires schools participating in federal student financial aid programs to obtain independent financial and compliance audits. We believe the most effective way for the INS to ensure that SEVIS audits are performed would be to coordinate with the Department of Education to incorporate SEVIS reviews into its audits. While this suggestion should encompass the majority of schools, the INS still would need to ensure that the remaining schools were audited.
- Oversight of Contract Investigators
We are concerned about the INS's ability to adequately train and oversee the contract investigators, a necessity in order to ensure consistent school reviews. According to a draft of the second certification rule, the INS expects contract investigators to collect documentation in support of the school's application during each site visit, tour the campus, interview school officials, and review selected school records for compliance with SEVIS regulations.
Because contract investigators will be under time constraints to complete the visits, we believe the INS needs to develop a monitoring and oversight process that will ensure the thoroughness of investigators' reviews. Given the time constraints, the INS needs to ensure that thoroughness of the contractors' site visits rather than speed remains the top priority. The INS did not provide us with details on its plans for monitoring the contract investigators in its response to our recommendations.
- INS Personnel Dedicated to Schools Program
In its response to the OIG's May 2002 report, the INS stated that it has not yet determined who at INS district offices would review and approve the schools' applications for enrollment in SEVIS. The INS stated that, contrary to our recommendation, INS personnel would not be dedicated to this task on a full-time basis. Rather, the INS said that this responsibility would be the "primary duty" of these INS employees, and full-time if warranted.
At the four INS district offices we visited during our May 2002 review, we found that the designated school officials were spending only 20 percent or less of their time on certifying and monitoring schools. Frequently, those individuals worked on other duties when backlogs occurred, such as processing other INS applications. As a result, we found delays in processing school applications. In addition, we found that the schools officers reviewed applications in a perfunctory manner and did no follow-up monitoring to ensure that the schools continued to meet program requirements.
Moreover, the INS must train the INS personnel who will be responsible for SEVIS duties. The INS convened a SEVIS training session in June and requested that each district office send a representative. However, because the INS had not decided specifically who in the district offices will be certifying and approving schools, there is no assurance that the appropriate INS personnel attended the June training session. Furthermore, our report noted the importance of providing SEVIS training not only to adjudicators, but also to INS inspectors and investigators. INS inspectors at the ports of entry need to be familiar with SEVIS in order to counter attempts by individuals to enter the United States fraudulently posing as students. In addition, SEVIS data will be useful to INS investigators to help identify fraud. We are not aware that any such training has been provided to these groups.
- Training for Designated School Officials
The INS has not implemented any formal training on SEVIS for Designated School Officials (DSOs), the officials responsible for representing schools in all matters related to foreign students. DSOs determine students' academic and financial eligibility, ensure compliance with INS record keeping and reporting requirements, monitor student activities and report violations, notify the INS of material changes in students' programs, and certify whether students are eligible to receive certain immigration benefits, such as employment. Only the individuals designated by the school as DSOs will be provided password access to SEVIS.
Throughout the past year, the INS has held a number of SEVIS demonstrations for school officials, and various school associations have provided training for their members. However, these training sessions were not mandatory and were not necessarily attended by DSOs from smaller schools (including flight schools) who are probably most in need of such training. During our May 2002 review, the INS had discussed developing a certification program that would require potential DSOs to complete an on line training module prior to allowing them access to SEVIS. We are unaware of the status of this proposal.
- Capturing Information about Part-Time Students
The law, as it currently stands, allows foreign visitors to attend classes in the United States on a part-time basis without having to obtain student visas. The INS does not currently collect information about these students or otherwise monitor them, and it does not plan to collect this information once SEVIS is fully implemented. Schools that offer courses on a part-time basis will not be included in SEVIS, unless they also have full-time programs to enroll foreign students. These include flight schools and trucking schools, which often do not provide the minimum number of course hours per week that would place the school under the INS's monitoring system for full-time students.
To increase the INS's effectiveness in collecting information on foreign students, the OIG recommended that the INS consider monitoring part-time students in SEVIS. While we recognize that collecting information about every visitor who enrolls in a class or a short course of study would impose a significant burden on the INS, we believe the INS should take steps to determine what information should be collected about these students and schools.
The INS did not concur with this recommendation. The INS responded that it is working with the Department of State and Congress to draft legislation to allow part-time students from Canada and Mexico to study in the United States under a new "F" nonimmigrant category. These students would then be included in SEVIS. However, the INS stated that it does not have the capability or the resources to track every nonimmigrant alien in the United States who enrolls in a limited course of study or individual course.
- Detecting Fraud
Our May 2002 report discussed the need for the INS to analyze the data from SEVIS and investigate instances of potential fraud. While an improved computer system will enhance the information available to the INS, it will be useful only in the detection of fraud if the INS devotes resources to monitoring the information and investigating instances of potential fraud.
For example, the data in SEVIS could be analyzed to compare the capacity of the school program and the number of students accepted or enrolled in the program. Past fraud investigations have identified schools that were accepting hundreds of students beyond the actual capacity of the school. The data could be used to compare the length of the course and the actual length of students' enrollment. A review of F-1 programs in one state identified numerous cases where schools were reporting students being in active status for as long as seven years beyond the normal course of study. A review of schools with extremely high percentages of no-shows or program dropouts could indicate a potential alien smuggling operation.
The INS agreed with our recommendation, but provided no details on how or when this would be accomplished.
Finally, SEVIS must be available throughout the INS for it to be useful. During our review, the INS discussed the plans to connect ports of entry, consular posts, INS Service Centers, and INS district offices to SEVIS. We have requested a copy of the INS's timetable for connecting these locations to SEVIS, but to date have not received further information on the status of these efforts. For the purpose of detecting fraud, it is extremely important that consular officers and INS primary inspectors, in particular, have the ability to access SEVIS in order to determine whether an I-20 is bona fide.
We believe that SEVIS will significantly enhance the INS's ability to monitor foreign students in the United States and improve its ability to prevent and detect fraud. We also believe that the INS should be credited for making significant strides in implementing SEVIS.
However, although we believe that SEVIS will be operational by January 30, 2003, we question whether it will be implemented fully by that date. For SEVIS to be fully implemented, and for the program to succeed, the INS must dedicate sufficient resources to ensure that INS personnel and school officials are adequately trained, that schools are certified by January 30, that schools are required to undergo routine recertification reviews that will include thorough site visits, that SEVIS data is analyzed to identify noncompliant and fraudulent operations, and that the INS swiftly enforces the law when it identifies fraud. These will be difficult tasks, but we believe they are necessary for SEVIS to achieve its full potential in improving the INS's foreign student program.
This concludes my prepared statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions.