Homeland Security officials defend student visitor system

As international students arrive in Washington, officials say Student and Exchange Visitor Information System balances efficiency, security.

Standing in front of the international baggage claim area at Washington Dulles International Airport, senior Homeland Security officials praised a program Friday that registers foreign students who come to study in the United States.

Robert Bonner, the commissioner of the Customs and Border Protection agency, described the Web-based Student and Exchange Visitor Information System as a "very important" homeland security tool. But he acknowledged that the program has had some growing pains since its inception last year.

"Certainly, there are challenges that remain," Bonner said.

In June, the Government Accountability Office released a report finding that the Homeland Security Department had successfully streamlined the process of collecting and recording information on foreign student and exchange visitors.

Earlier this month, however, education policy experts revealed that international graduate school applications had fallen 32 percent in the past year, most likely because of immigration restrictions.

Homeland Security officials organized Friday's press conference to coincide with the arrival of international students for the beginning of the school year.

"We want to offer a warm welcome and timely, convenient service to the great many foreign exchange and student visitors coming to America this fall," Bonner said. "The SEVIS program allows U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to determine whether individuals are legitimate students and to quickly process these students through our ports of entry. Yet at the same time, we are better able to deny entry to those who would try to illegally gain entry into the United States, masking themselves as students."

According to DHS, about 770,000 students and exchange visitors-and 100,000 of their dependents-are registered with SEVIS.

DHS Assistant Secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement Michael Garcia accompanied Bonner and said the SEVIS program restored "integrity" to the immigration system.

"Violators of our immigration laws, in this case those who abuse this country's generous program of welcoming foreign students, will now face enforcement consequences," he said. Garcia told reporters that he had "met with some of those school groups" who want to study in the United States, and he heard positive reviews of the SEVIS system.

Shortly after Bonner and Garcia spoke, a group of international students was scheduled to arrive at Dulles. Journalists at the press conference were invited to view and photograph the students as they disembarked, but were told that the international visitors would not be available to discuss their feelings about the SEVIS system.