Foreign studeent tracking fiasco

Posted: May 22, 2002 12:00 AM
Remember the big announcement from Attorney General John Ashcroft and Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner James Ziglar less than two weeks ago? The one about how a new foreign student tracking system will be in place this summer and fully operational by Jan. 30, 2003? Well, never mind. The Justice Department's inspector general threw a cold, wet blanket of reality on all that tough-sounding rhetoric in a new report that will bring smiles to foreign student terrorists from coast to coast. The inspector general said it is unlikely that the INS will be able to meet the Jan. 30, 2003, deadline for full implementation of the monitoring system, called SEVIS (Student Exchange and Visitor Information System). The office also raises doubts about how much impact the new monitoring system will have on the war on terrorism. Why? For all the same reasons the agency has failed to build and fully operate any effective tracking system since it was first mandated six years ago: technical incompetence, inability to collect accurate data, lack of training, loose enforcement, and lax compliance by universities and colleges that have been dragged kicking and screaming into cooperating. The agency's foreign student program remains supremely dysfunctional. Setting a make-believe deadline to fix deep-rooted defects is yet another of the agency's public relations stunts masquerading as "reform." The INS can at least tell us that there are some 1 million foreigners now in the United States with student visas. But it can't say how many of them actually are attending the schools they applied to, where they are if they transferred or dropped out, or whether the student data that schools give them are truthful or fraudulent. Even worse, the agency remains clueless about the legitimacy of the schools it has authorized to issue highly coveted I-20 forms, which certify eligibility for foreign student status. Believe it or not, the inspector general discovered that Huffman Aviation (the Florida flight school attended by Sept. 11 hijackers Mohammed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi) has been certified by the INS to accept foreign students for more than decade even though it did not (and does not) meet course study requirements. Like an unknown number of the 70,000 schools currently certified to supply foreign students with entry documents, Huffman was never visited by an INS official. Not that an INS official would know what to look for even if he or she had paid such a visit. The inspector general notes that many of the personnel assigned to certify schools accepting foreign students are "uncertain as to what they are supposed to be looking for when certifying schools." The INS says it's going to recertify all of the schools on its list. But it doesn't know exactly how yet, and it is required to publish new regulations before it can do anything to systematically purge the list of bogus institutions. Among the bona fide schools on the list, ignorance and apathy pervade. Although university lobbyists say they support the new tracking system, administrators continue to whine about the costs and burdens. Foreign students who seem to have forgotten that they are guests of our country continue to gripe about the government's "invasion of privacy." And even among those officials who
do want to put national security above tuition money-grubbing, there is a total lack of preparedness to do the job. The inspector general wrote: "INS officials told us that many school employees who deal with the foreign student program are untrained and unaware of INS regulations." Untrained and unaware. Guess that makes them just as qualified as all those INS officials wallowing in uncertainty. A final reality check. The inspector general warns: "To date, the INS has not formulated any concrete plans for conducting or requiring verifications of the accuracy of the data that the schools enter" into the new system. The agency does not know who, if anyone, will be assigned to separate truth from fiction. And even if it did, "it is not clear that the INS will use this information any more fully than in the past." Can't you just hear Osama and his students cackling in their caves right now?