Closer tabs on student visas

A year ago, administrator Sonja Mackenzie was up to her eyeballs processing foreign-student applications to attend the University of West Florida, when an e-mail from the Department of Homeland Security popped up onto her computer screen.

At first, the content of the message seemed routine. The government was confirming receipt of the university's application to use its new tracking system for foreign students. Ms. MacKenzie, however, quickly spotted the problem. Her school had already been preapproved months earlier.

So she called Washington to tell security officials their new high-tech system had goofed. But as it turned out it had not. Someone was attempting to masquerade as the university, hoping to gain access to the system. With that access would come the ability to print out applications for student visas.

An investigation traced the bogus application to the overseas e-mail account of a prospective student - not a terrorist.

It could have been worse. Ever since a 9/11 hijacker entered the US on a student visa (and two others received visas posthumously), Congress has demanded a better accounting of students in the US. The computerized Student Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS, has been the main result.

Now, one year after the Aug. 1 deadline for United States schools with foreign students to join SEVIS, the nation's most ambitious, complex, and controversial effort to track foreign students has smoothed many of the early bumps in its operation, federal and university officials agree. But on some critical issues, like corrupt school officials gaming the system, vulnerabilities remain.

On the plus side, school officials report routine, easy access to SEVIS. Some say the computerization has reduced paper shuffling; others say that it actually encourages these students to stay in school and maintain their course load.

As of mid-July, the SEVIS system was tracking 772,129 active foreign students at 7,318 schools, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the Department of Homeland Security.

One of the system's aims is to screen out institutional applicants who fail to meet educational criteria - which some euphemistically have called "ghost schools" or "visa mills."

During the past year, at least 843 schools were denied access to SEVIS because they applied late or did not meet criteria. This group includes some institutions that routinely granted admission and an I-20 - the key document needed to gain a student visa at a US consulate or embassy abroad - for a steep price, but ended up requiring little real education, officials said. Another 958 applicants are still awaiting certification.

"In the first year we've been particularly pleased with SEVIS's overall success," says Russ Knocke, an ICE spokesman. "It's a good sign the SEVIS program is catching those individuals it needs to catch."

One key concern among opponents of SEVIS had been the fear that besides being cumbersome, the system might become a dragnet for harassing foreign students. Homeland security officials are quick to point out that only a small minority of students come under intense scrutiny, with a still smaller group arrested.

Since last August, the SEVIS system has produced 8,261 "violator leads." Out of those, only 1,122 qualified as "violator leads for action," which required sending field office agents to campus. Of those, 136 cases ended in an arrest.

Federal officials would not say what percentage of arrests involved terrorism. Some involved visa fraud and other crimes, they say.

But while university officials say the system is working, they also point out critical gaps.

The new system is supposed to eliminate fake I-20s. A key feature is that each I-20 granted by an educational institutions has its own bar code and serial number allocated to a specific student. It is canceled when the student no longer needs it. In the past, blank pads of I-20s were stolen and sold or forged. In theory, SEVIS should eliminate trafficking in I-20s.

But the practice apparently continues.

Last August, ICE agents learned that an official at Texas Southern University in Houston, who was authorized by Homeland Security to issue I-20 forms, had actually been selling SEVIS-based I-20 forms and fraudulent transcripts to "aliens" outside the university, a federal official told the Monitor.

During an investigation based on an anonymous tip, the official says, federal agents purchased these documents from a university official, who also sold I-20s to aliens in the US.

These aliens, in turn, sold the documents to aliens from a Middle Eastern nation, the official says. One reseller wired his earnings - more than $40,000 - out of the US in the past year, according to the official, who refused to be identified to protect future investigations.

Hasan Jamil, assistant vice president of enrollment services at Texas Southern, who oversees the international student office that issues I-20s, acknowledges the investigation and a change in personnel. But federal agents made only broad allegations, he adds. "We have no evidence that we have ever been shown that any [school official] has sold I-20s."

The federal official says "that vulnerability has been plugged."

Of possibly even deeper concern is whether the system ensures that students who enter the US actually end up at school.

Like University of West Florida, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University - a major flight school in Prescott, Ariz. - also found itself the target of an attempt to set up a fake online school in its name. That attempt failed when ICE agents traced the bogus application to a Nigerian student who was denied a visa.

Despite this victory, an official at Embry-Riddle worries about inconsistencies in SEVIS notifications. A student's arrival in the US is supposed to be logged into the SEVIS system by immigration officials at the port of entry so the school knows the student should soon be on campus.

If the student doesn't show up for classes within 30 days, SEVIS notes the student is "out of status" and subject to investigation and possible deportation.

Last fall, though, many of Embry-Riddle's foreign students arrived on campus to the surprise of school officials who never received notification they had entered the country.

"I would say we received notification maybe one-third to perhaps half the time when our students came into a port of entry," says Andy Fraher, director of international student services at Embry-Riddle. "It's going to be a test this fall to see if it changes."

Ms. Mackenzie at the University of West Florida with about 300 foreign students at this time last year, corroborates the problem: "Occasionally, some students arrive whom we haven't been notified about."

Mr. Knocke, the ICE spokesman, says that such problems have been fixed.

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