Foreign student tracking system called inefficient, intrusive

The Homeland Security Department's difficulties in managing the foreign student tracking system so far have raised questions about its ability to handle broader monitoring programs.

"You better bet we'll make a fuss, if you charge to spy on us!"

An angry throng of more than 100 students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison stood shouting in military cadence at a panel of school administrators, who'd called an emergency campus meeting in April. The students, about half of them from foreign countries, denounced the school's plan to make foreign students pay for a U.S. government database to monitor them.

The administrators pleaded their case. Under new homeland security laws, all U.S. schools have to register their foreign students in the database, known as the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). The system keeps tabs on the courses students take, where they travel and whether they've had disciplinary problems or been arrested.

The university estimated the cost of computers and staff to comply with the program would soar past $300,000 each year.With state budgets slashed, foreign students would have to foot the bill.

The protesters said the plan was unfair, because the money wasn't taken from the general student fund. But they were more outraged that foreigners were being singled out for inspection in the first place. Unmoved by the officials' remarks, they shouted again.

"We deserve a better fate! You know we make Wisconsin great!"

"It was a madhouse," says Mike Quieto, president of the teaching assistants' union at the university, which is leading the campus opposition to one of the most ambitious and controversial security initiatives the government has undertaken in the nearly 2-year-old war on terrorism.

The Wisconsin students aren't alone in their opposition to SEVIS. Many students and school officials charge that the system was an overreaction by the government to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Two of the Sept. 11 hijackers were in the United States on student visas. Soon after the attacks, the wide-ranging 2001 U.S.A. Patriot Act required that every university, college, trade school and student exchange program begin monitoring their students. Supporters of the program defend it as a necessary security measure.

SEVIS is a test of how well the Homeland Security Department, which manages the system, will handle a much larger and more complicated system it plans to create to track more than 35 million visitors who enter the country each year. That system, known as U.S. VISIT, will collect and share information, including such identifiers as fingerprints, about every person who crosses the border.

SEVIS is supposed to be incorporated into the U.S. VISIT system, which will "coordinate our border information and our enforcement and compliance efforts," Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for border and transportation security, explained during a speech in May. U.S. VISIT is "just the latest step in [the department's] information modernization," he said.

That modernization includes initiatives such as upgrading cargo security and airline passenger monitoring. Since SEVIS is one of the first building blocks of this expansive security system, it's a gauge of how well the department can manage such projects.

For months, foreign student advisers from about 5,000 institutions have been frantically entering records into SEVIS to meet an Aug. 1 deadline for registering this fall's class. But they have been hamstrung by protests and an endless string of technical glitches with the computer system, which range from the mildly frustrating to defects so severe that some universities have been forced to close their foreign student offices for days waiting for repairs to be made.

Officials at the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Homeland Security agency in charge of SEVIS, insist the system will help close holes in immigration policy and keep some would-be terrorists out of the country. But in the meantime, foreign student advisers are bobbing and weaving through SEVIS using jury-rigged workarounds to trick the system into doing what they want. Chris Bentley, a bureau spokesman, says quirks and bugs are to be expected in any new project. Executives from Electronic Data Systems, the Plano, Texas, company that built SEVIS, declined to be interviewed for this story, referring all questions to the bureau.

Student advisers across the country have become concerned about the effects of SEVIS' ongoing glitches. Some advisers are counseling students not to go back to their home countries on school breaks, lest SEVIS accidentally delete their records, as it has in the past. Students who aren't in the system can't re-enter the country.

Advisers also are warning students to expect more hassles. This spring, they sent tens of thousands of e-mails and letters telling students that because their SEVIS-issued immigration papers still can't be read electronically at ports of entry, the students will be taken to interrogation stations for processing when they return to the United States. Such stations are usually reserved for suspected illegal immigrants. The students have been told not to be alarmed.

Some malfunctions in SEVIS have distorted students' files, mysteriously replacing or deleting various pieces of information. Students can be deported if their records aren't in order. Already, some have been held overnight in jails or kept from re-entering the United States because their records were misplaced or because the system garbled them.

Bug Infestation

"Oh, you're not going to believe what it's doing now," said Catheryn Cotten, the director of the International Office at Duke University, to the SEVIS help desk technician on the phone as she stared in amazement at her computer screen. Cotten had logged into the system to work on some foreign exchange students' records. But when she clicked a link to access them, SEVIS told her there were 1,800 exchange students still awaiting entry. Cotten was stunned.

"I don't have that many [full-time foreign students] at Duke, let alone in my exchange program," she says, recounting the event. Somehow, Cotten had accessed the records of a summer camp program at another school that trains foreigners to be counselors. The help desk operator wasn't surprised. This had happened before; so many times, in fact, that the glitch had been given a name: "bleeding." Several schools have seen their student records mixed up with those of other institutions in the past few months. A student record from Michigan State University, for example, was routed to a printer at a college in Arizona. In other instances, pieces of data are jumbled. Officials at the University of Texas in Austin reported that a student's last name was listed as an address, one that didn't belong to any student in the school's records.

Daily interactions with SEVIS have become a test of wit and will, school officials say. In the beginning, Cotten says, the defects were simply irritating. For example, if an accepted student decided at the last minute not to attend the school, Cotten couldn't note that in the student's record or simply delete the record. Eventually, that problem was corrected.

But then the bugs got bigger. In one instance, Cotten was unable to create a record for the newborn child of a foreign professor. She discovered that once certain data had been entered into SEVIS, it couldn't be modified. The professor's wife and other children had records, as required by law, but they were created when the professor was first registered. All of the records were essentially treated as one, and they were unchangeable. In order to register the baby, Cotten had to delete everyone's file and create new ones.

New defects have continued popping up as the August compliance deadline nears. Before extra capacity was added to the system, several student advisers logging on at once caused SEVIS to slow dramatically. Many waited anxiously next to their computers for several minutes for SEVIS to accept a single record. Sometimes, SEVIS crashed under the stress and expunged the day's work. The delays and headaches led some schools to close their student offices and ask employees to work nights and weekends, when traffic was lighter.

The SEVIS help desk is the advisers' only lifeline. The call center is staffed by employees of Electronic Data Systems. Those technicians have been trained in how to use SEVIS, and they're supposed to be familiar with basic immigration policies. But several school officials complain that the technicians' troubleshooting tips are of little use. They were unable to solve the bleeding problem, for instance. EDS had to reprogram SEVIS to do that. What's more, when working around a kink requires knowing whether the solution would be a legal infraction, the technicians often find themselves out of their element. "My experience with them is they've been very courteous and polite, and they don't know the immigration regulations," says Peter Briggs, the head of the international students program at Michigan State University.

Briggs says his employees have been put on hold at the help desk for long periods, only to be offered a solution that turned out to be wrong. The Association of International Educators in Washington reports that some schools have waited hours or days to get a call back. Sometimes, the help desk technicians have confessed to being as stumped as their customers. The association notes an anonymous report of technicians telling one school that a "catastrophic error" had occurred while processing its records. When school officials asked what had caused the error, and what "catastrophic" meant, the technicians said they didn't know.

"It's a lot like trying to call my phone company," says Victor Johnson, a policy official with the association.

At Georgetown University in Washington, foreign student advisers have documented workarounds to the SEVIS system in a user guide, which the advisers created on their own after deciding the government-issued manual was useless. But some of the workarounds create student records that are technically inaccurate. For instance, SEVIS doesn't allow a change in students' enrollment dates. So, if a student who entered a university in 1999 as an undergraduate is scheduled to start a graduate program in 2003, the school must change his program from a bachelor's degree to a master's track and then extend the date of completion two years. The result is that the student appears to be enrolled in a six-year graduate program.

School officials say SEVIS' problems are more than a hassle-they're a danger. A student from Washington University in St. Louis was held overnight in jail because the school couldn't access her file. Her student status was suspended, and she was taken into custody while the problem was solved.

Considering how burdensome SEVIS has become, and the risk it poses to students, many of its critics-and even its supporters-are asking why such an immature system was rushed into place.

Born Too Soon

SEVIS' detractors and defenders agree on one thing: It was put into national use too quickly. The government and the contractor didn't take the time to perfect the system, they say. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials deny that, saying any glitches in the system are to be expected from a project of its scale.

SEVIS is the government's second attempt to monitor foreign students. In the late 1990s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service ran a pilot project to track such students under the requirements of a sweeping immigration reform law. The legislation was prompted in part by the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. One of the terrorists in that attack was in the United States on a student visa, and others had slipped through the cracks of immigration controls.

The pilot was not designed to become a national system, however. The INS had intended to examine its results and then build something new, school officials who participated in the test say. It was a "throwaway project," says Johnson. "It wasn't supposed to become something bigger."

The Sept. 11 attacks changed everything. The U.S.A. Patriot Act, enacted quickly after the attacks, revived the requirement for a tracking program, and the 2002 Homeland Security Act later gave the new department responsibility for managing it. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based organization that describes itself as "pro-immigrant, low-immigration," agrees that the government launched SEVIS before it was ready. However, Krikorian, who supports the program, says its failures are a result of immigration authorities' "decades of neglect" of enforcement laws.

Had the Sept. 11 attacks never occurred, a tracking system probably wouldn't have been enacted, Krikorian says. The student tracking pilot project involved less than two dozen schools and didn't have rigid deadlines. The momentum behind it waned as time went by. So, now that Congress has demanded action through SEVIS, Krikorian says the government is playing catch-up.

EDS built the pilot student-tracking system after the 1996 immigration law was enacted. The company's current work on SEVIS is an outgrowth of that project, and its contract with the government is up for competition next year.

Duke University's Cotten, who participated in the tracking pilot, says SEVIS performs worse than the previous system. SEVIS' glitches are of a kind one might see in the rudimentary version of a computer program, she says. "What we're seeing is the shakedown process . . . under the cloak that it is somehow supposed to be a full-blown active system," Cotten says. "We're just dealing with a thrown-together process."

Bentley, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman, says glitches in the system are usually fixed within two weeks. But he acknowledges the process is not running smoothly yet. "I would not want to even paint the picture that this is run like a well-oiled machine," he says.

Cotten says that when changes are made to SEVIS, new errors often crop up. It's as if changing one function adversely affects several others, she says. "It begs the question, how rickety is [SEVIS] if you can't do upgrades to it?"

The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has yet to name an official to oversee SEVIS. Until that happens, Bentley says, EDS is considered the day-to-day manager of the program.

Ideological Divide

The Sept. 11 attacks fueled Congress' insistence on launching the SEVIS program, even with its faults. But the debate about whether using SEVIS is appropriate still rages.

SEVIS proponents argue that the system is necessary to prevent abuses of the student visa process. Some also contend foreign students are more likely to engage in acts of terrorism than their domestic counterparts, and therefore need to be monitored. Krikorian, the head of the immigration policy group, says that students who come to the U.S. from "traditional societies," particularly in the Middle East, "are undergoing massive culture shock" on U.S. campuses. They may be offended by what they perceive as more liberal social attitudes, and that may elicit hostility, he says. Many professors and academic advisers do little to discourage extreme behavior, Krikorian contends. "They're neutral in the war on terror."

School officials are familiar with such accusations and they dismiss them largely without comment. As for whether foreign students are more likely to become terrorists, Johnson notes that of all the people who've committed terrorist acts on U.S. soil, only two entered the country on student visas. One belonged to the cell that bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, and he attended a university. The other terrorist, who joined the Sept. 11 hijackers, used the visa to enter the country and then disappeared.

Two other hijackers held student visas at the time of their deaths, but they applied for them after they entered the country, and they studied at flight schools, not universities. Many nonacademic institutions that have hosted foreign students over the years-including pet grooming schools and beauty academies-have had their authority to do so revoked under SEVIS. Most terrorists have entered the country by means other than a student visa, so opponents of SEVIS say the government is tracking the wrong people. "The [legal] approach has been an assumption . . . that [foreign] students are latent terrorists and need to be managed as such," says Cotten.

Immigration spokesman Bentley denies that the administration thinks foreign students pose a greater terror risk. Officials say SEVIS simply keeps track of people who might abuse their visas. During his May speech about security initiatives, Homeland Security's Hutchinson, who didn't respond to an invitation to discuss SEVIS, said that authorities have used the system to spot roughly 3,000 student visa holders who never showed up for class. Hutchinson touted the system as a "powerful tool for combating fraud and misuse of the visa system."

But SEVIS is designed to track more than just a student's attendance record. It also monitors which classes students take, whether they've changed their academic majors and whether they've had any disciplinary problems. Certain behaviors might elicit suspicion-for instance, if a student suddenly switched his major from poetry to nuclear physics. Immigration officials don't deny that SEVIS can be used for this kind of surveillance, but they've focused on its ability to monitor so-called "no-show" students.

Officials admit tracking those students will be tough because the government only employs 5,500 enforcement officers. With an estimated 1.2 million foreign students in SEVIS, the officers are outnumbered by more than 200 to one. For now, authorities plan to pursue SEVIS infractions only on a case-by-case basis.

Krikorian says that to some degree, universities have brought these strict measures on themselves, because they haven't complied fully with immigration policies. They "don't like the idea of having to distinguish between American students and foreign students," he says. School officials admit they are advocates for foreign students. But they insist that over the years many schools have submitted more information about their students than was required by law. Overwhelmed, the INS actually told many schools to stop sending some information.

Lasting Lessons

Despite the disagreements over whether SEVIS is necessary or appropriate, no one doubts the system is here to stay. "It's a fait accompli," says Quieto, the University of Wisconsin teaching assistant. His sentiment is echoed by a number of school administrators and their associations, who agree that, in the midst of the war on terrorism, few people in government would take the political risk of opposing SEVIS.

But the lasting lesson for government may have less to do with politics than with process. The Homeland Security Department has committed to creating a number of ambitious programs that, like SEVIS, are heavily dependent on technology and the involvement of nongovernmental players. The department's difficulties in managing SEVIS thus far, have raised questions about its ability to handle future programs, many of which will be vastly broader in scope.

School officials want the government to do a better job communicating with them. The foreign student advisers associations have done the lion's share of public relations work about SEVIS. Schools have little to no interaction with Homeland Security officials. And some schools haven't been aware of major SEVIS developments. Cotten says representatives of at least 50 small colleges that attended a March meeting in North Carolina didn't even know about the August deadline for complying with SEVIS.

The technical failings of SEVIS and the difficulty the government has had in implementing it undermine its security potential, Cotten says. "If the American people feel safer because of SEVIS, then they are severely misled," she says.

Yet the greatest irony of SEVIS may be that the program has forced the very school officials most leery of efforts to monitor students to take on that role on the government's behalf. Schools can be punished for not reporting even seemingly innocuous details, such as a student's mid-semester course adjustment. Advisers who've long seen themselves as advocates now feel like informants.

"We're supposed to be the ones helping the students, and yet at the same time now we're having to be the policing force," says Toni Liston, the international student adviser at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville.

Despite the vocal protests at schools such as the University of Wisconsin, SEVIS has had a chilling effect on student dissent. During recent demonstrations against the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Cotten says, foreign students asked her if they could be deported for attending the rallies. "I told them, you absolutely have the right to participate in any free speech activity on our campus or anywhere else," she says. Then she leveled with them. "If things look like they're getting out of hand, be someplace else."

Being watched closely is nothing new for foreign students, who've always had to report their whereabouts to authorities. But, after SEVIS, says Quieto, things are different. "It just wasn't so scary before."