Officials criticize system for tracking foreign students

A system intended to track foreign students has been improved since its 2003 inception, but personnel issues are causing delays and potentially deterring students from pursuing degrees in the United States, witnesses at a joint hearing of two House subcommittees warned Thursday.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), operated by the Homeland Security Department, was created as part of a 2001 anti-terrorism law known as the USA PATRIOT Act. It was initially plagued by technical mishaps but since has been improved, according to the department and the Government Accountability Office.

"Indications are that SEVIS performance has improved and continues to improve," Randolph Hite, director of GAO's information technology architecture and systems issues, said at the hearing of the House Education and the Workforce Select Education and 21st-Century Competitiveness subcommittees.

Hite criticized "residual help-desk problems," which can cause delays when students are attempting to obtain visas. He stopped short, however, of blaming SEVIS entirely for the declining number of international students.

That decline can partly be attributed to growing higher education competition abroad, said C.D. Mote, president of the University of Maryland. "U.S. schools have not been aggressive in pursuing international students" because the nation traditionally has dominated in graduate education. "That game has changed entirely and our country has not understood that completely," he said. "We have to be more effective in our competition."

"Those seeking to study in science and engineering [have faced] major delays in receiving their visas because of security clearances," said Dale Kildee of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the 21st-Century Competitiveness Subcommittee. "We have to redouble our efforts to process [visas] more quickly. The potential impact is huge" if students decide to study elsewhere.

The United States should preserve its flow of talented international students into the country while also maintaining adequate safeguards against potential terrorists, said subcommittee Chairman Howard (Buck) McKeon, R-Calif.

Victor Cerda, special counsel for immigration and customs enforcement at Homeland Security, said his department organized SEVIS "in a manner to meet that balance" between education opportunities and security. "By no means is this a done deal," he added. "We continue to work with the universities and the Department of State, but there's always room for improvement."

Homeland Security is particularly concerned about the "overall integrity of the information in SEVIS," Cerda said. As a result, the department is "working toward an overall data integrity strategy" and the student and exchange visitor program is "considering the establishment of a federal advisory committee specifically focused on performance," he said.

Mote echoed GAO's concern about personnel. University staff are not allowed to correct errors entered into SEVIS and must ask federal authorities before making changes.

"The correction can take months, and often students graduate before the 'fix' occurs," he said. "SEVIS should qualify a designated school official at each institution to correct technical errors and report the changes on a specific schedule."