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(4/22/2003)
Former INS District Director's Testimony on SEVIS Implementation

 

Statement of Thomas P. Fischer Former INS District Director, Atlanta District (Retired)

Committee on House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims

April 2, 2003

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me to your hearing, and allowing me to provide you my insight regarding the current Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) development and implementation of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). As you are aware, this program was developed to track and monitor foreign student educational participation in academic and vocational schools within the United States.

Before I address my comments regarding the SEVIS program, I feel it is important to look at the genesis of the student enrollment and tracking process before SEVIS was implemented. The purpose of this is not to "walk down memory lane", but to provide all of the Committee members an insight that may be helpful since the purpose of this hearing is to evaluate the implementation of SEVIS, and promote ". . . possible modifications to the system that might improve its performance and functionality in the war against terrorism."

To do this, I believe it is important to review certain actions the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) implemented in the mid 1990's. Although to some degree the March 2003 Department of Justice report titled Follow-up Review on the INS Efforts to Track Foreign Students in the US through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System , (Report Number I-2003-003, March 2003) partially addresses this issue, it nevertheless misses the mark on more relevant and critical shortcomings of SEVIS. I will try to provide more specific information and data that hopefully will allow you to evaluate the current SEVIS program, and its forerunner, CIPRIS (Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students), which began in 1997 as a pilot test and part of an interagency taskforce partnership group, with national program development initiatives. However, full development of a national CIPRIS system was halted by former INS Deputy Commissioner Mary Ann Wyrsch in October 1999. This action dramatically scaled down the program and reduced the development of a national system to a state that can best be described as one of minimal life support.

As you are aware, since the end of the Second World War, the INS has been charged with conducting a program to approve schools (vocational and academic) and universities to participate in a program that allowed foreign nationals to come to the United States (US) and take courses of study in any academic area that may enhance their skill level (English language training, pilot training, vocational training), or lead to receiving a degree of academic achievement in a specific area (BS, BA, MA, MBA, PhD), with course work in many areas such as accounting, chemistry, engineering, fine arts, and nuclear science to name a few.

This was a paper-based process for establishing visa eligibility for participation of those foreign students who were eligible, and who received from the U.S. Department of State non-immigrant visas (NIV) in the F, M or J classifications, for themselves and their dependents. The program has allowed over two million foreign students to come to the US for study, and generally the INS admitted them as F/M/J non-immigrants, and on their I-94 (Arrival/Departure Card) showed the authorized length of stay as D/S, Duration of Status. This meant that there was not any specific date to leave the US, or to coincide with the ending date on the F-1 NIV issued by the DOS, or the ending date of their course of study or proposed graduation. This allowed much flexibility for the schools as well as the students for both transition to other programs or degrees, full-time employment as an H-1B, as well as the possibility for abusing the guidelines. It also resulted in abuses both by schools and students failing to abide by the legitimate terms of the programs.

The program going back to the early 1980's that provided this "flexibility" was the Student and Schools System (STSC) program. Unfortunately, there was no immediate database or system against which the Department of State consular officer could check, and to verify the authenticity of supporting documents and information on key eligibility forms, such as the I-20 and IAP- 66. The review was done on an ad hoc basis by the DOS with varying operating policies depending on the embassy and its staff. Once issued the NIV, and admitted by the INS, the student was "supposed to be monitored by at the mercy" of the designated school official who was delegated by the INS awesome responsibility, and acted as a surrogate INS adjudicator/information officer/school officer. However, as you can imagine, this arrangement made for wide spread abuses, committed by both students and Designated School Officials.

The schools in many cases had just as porous of a tracking system and record keeping process, and experienced document fraud as well. Academic drop outs, no shows and the like, could not be tracked and, even if they were reported and identified, there was no means for them being found or apprehended.

During the mid-1990's, many INS field and headquarters officials were concerned about abuses in the program and its affect on US security. They also were aware that the current system lacked any way to accurately identify the names and locations of foreign students within the US and their program participation. Also, they were very concerned with the apparent inability of State Department and INS field officials to have a database at their disposal that could prevent issuance of visas to those ineligible to receive them, or monitoring databases with peripheral related information, such as financial databases, NCIC, Interpol and others. This concern was shared by the FBI, which alerted the Deputy Attorney General to the problem in 1995, who in turn directed INS to address the issue. Based on this concern, INS established a Task Force in 1995 that was to address the concerns of these officers, and that task force convened on a fairly regular basis that year. The Task Force issued its findings and recommendations in a December 1995 report on the extensive weaknesses and vulnerabilities inherent in the program, and the ease with which terrorists, criminals, etc., could take advantage of the program to gain entry and freedom of movement throughout the U.S. without being effectively screened, monitored or tracked. It should be mentioned that historically there are over 500,000 foreign students in the US on any given day, with generous travel and work provisions delegated to the DSO.

The following year, partially in response to the Task Forces report and recommendations, Public Law 104-208 (IIRIRA) was passed by the Congress. One of the features of that legislation required INS to develop a system to collect foreign student information electronically from colleges and universities in order to screen, monitor, and track them. The INS moved ahead with a program to meet these Congressional mandates, planning a new electronic tracking process. This program was named CIPRIS, and the Atlanta District of the INS, of which I was the District Director at the time, was identified in 1997 as the pilot District for development and implementation of a test concept pilot program.

It was determined by the INS officials at all levels that in order to succeed and develop a sound, relevant workable program would require the assistance and commitment of all participating parties and organizations. This included Federal officials, school and university officials, and parent organizations of those groups (National Association of Foreign Student Advisors- NAFSA), and where appropriate other individuals with a stake in the project. In April 1997, a workshop was convened in Atlanta, Georgia by the CIPRIS Task Force Project Leader, Mr. Morrie Berez, from INS Headquarters. Mr. Berez was involved with CIPRIS from the beginning as the leader of the original Task Force and author of the Task Forces report. I believe that it can be accurately stated for the record that Mr. Berez was the principal architect of the program. Over 20 schools and exchange programs participated in this partnership session, with representatives from institutions of higher education such as the University of Alabama, Duke University, Auburn, Shaw University, and Mercer University, as well as vocational schools institutions that provided flight training and English as a second language training. Through evaluation and lessons learned from the pilot, and extensive involvement of key stakeholders from both government and schools, the elements and features of a sophisticated, computer-based proactive national CIPRIS system were outlined in a summary paper in April 1999.

The summary paper outlined an all electronic interactive process that would effectively eliminate all F/M/J NIV visa fraud as observed earlier (forged documents, counterfeit supporting documents, etc.) and created a process that expanded the screening to include on-site real time registration information as well as course/major participation and location of student. The national program envisioned in the paper was aimed at guarding against criminals and known and suspected terrorists being able to slip into the U.S. under the guise of students or exchange visitors. The highlights of the envisioned national CIPRIS program included the following features that were not part of the current STSC program, and for the most part are not included in the design or plans for SEVIS. These features can be condensed into 20 basic areas as follows:

  1. The identifying information in the CIPRIS transmission actions would include the alien's full name, COB, DOB, gender, and passport number (if the alien possessed a passport at time of application to the school), major area of study or training, school, address and other routine data.
  2. In addition to the basic identifying information in item 1 above, the school would also capture and transmit to a national CIPRIS system the full name of the applicants father and mother, all siblings, and their dates and places of birth. A fully realized national CIPRIS would also require that the school capture and enter into CIPRIS the student's last two addresses abroad for the past 3 years, last job, job title and place of employment, last school attended and areas of study, as well as the source of funding for the student's program of study including the account type and account number. Also included would be the name and address of the bank or entity containing the funds, and the full identity of the person or organization who "owns" the account.
  3. Upon receipt of the transmitted data from the school, a national CIPRIS program would then instantly verify the legitimacy of the school/sponsor and the DSO, as well as the study program information.
  4. A national CIPRIS would do a "lookout" pre-screen, running the identifying data against all pertinent lookout systems (NAILS, IBIS, INTERPOL, TECS, etc.), as well as running the applicants information against risk assessment models for fraud and national security.
  5. A national CIPRIS would also instantly transmit the "source of funding" money account to FinCEN at the Department of Treasury to prescreen against laundered funds as well as to possibly "flag" an account or institution as being associated with illicit or terrorist-related funds transactions.
  6. A national CIPRIS also would cross-check all existing records within its data base (being a relational data base) to identify and flag any previous or duplicate records within the CIPRIS system relating to the "new" record entry that has been transmitted by the school to CIPRIS, and if a duplicate match is found, flagging the record as a possible duplicate for review and verification by a CIPRIS action aide who would either determine that the case is or is not a duplicate and clear the transaction to proceed, or, if a duplicate, initiate automated file consolidation within CIPRIS, thus eliminating duplicate or multi records.
  7. The cross-check lookouts and file duplication search would be all automated and would run within seconds.
  8. Where a record is flagged either because of a "lookout hit" or a FinCEN "possible", then it would automatically be routed to both an INS investigative desk officer as well as a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analyst for possible investigation for fraud, criminal alien, terrorist affiliation, etc. The system would send a notice to the school that the record has been referred for review and that it may take up to 30 days for the system to respond with an outcome, either a "go" to issue eligibility document, or a "hold" wherein no authorization can be forthcoming and the school must contact INS directly regarding the particular record.
  9. The system would process and issue a "go" or "hold" on a record within 24 hours of receipt and processing.
  10. In the case of a "go" (expected to be the case 95% of the time) the school would proceed to the next steps in the business process, receiving back from the CIPRIS system electronically the ability to generate a bar-coded notice that then goes to the alien overseas as required in order to apply for the appropriate F, J or M nonimmigrant visa (or change of status if already in the U.S. as a visitor). This notice would eliminate the form I-20 (still issued in SEVIS) to further lessen the opportunity for counterfeiting or duplicating such documents fraudulently.
  11. If overseas, the alien would bring the notice with them to the American consulate along with their supporting evidence for applying for the visa. At the Consulate, the Consular Officer verifies the legitimacy of the alien's record instantly through direct access to the CIPRIS data. If the school/sponsor record (validated by INS) is not in CIPRIS at the point of visa application or if it's in CIPRIS with "flag" holding it for investigation, the alien is refused a visa. Simply put, if there is no INS-validated record in CIPRIS that is immediately accessible at the visa post, or if the case is on "hold" as a possible criminal or terrorist, etc., then there is no visa issuance. Any applicant presenting a CIPRIS notice must have a validated and "cleared" electronic record in CIPRIS, or no notice could ever be issued, and the likelihood is that the alien is presenting a counterfeit notice in their attempt to obtain the visa.
  12. If there's a "go" in CIPRIS thus proving prima facie eligibility for an F/M/J visa, the consular officer can then more thoroughly screen and interview the applicant and verify the authenticity of supporting evidence. If the visa is approved or denied, then the action is entered immediately into the DOS CLASS system by the consular officer, which in turn automatically updates the CIPRIS record. If approved, the visa information, passport information, and photo/fingerprint of the alien are downloaded immediately into the CIPRIS system from the visa post, updating the alien's CIPRIS record, and CIPRIS electronically notifies the school/sponsor of the alien's visa issuance based on their record.
  13. The visa produced and issued to the alien would be a credit card size combination Visa/Identity card, containing identifying information together with the aliens photograph and fingerprint both on the face of the card, and encoded in a machine readable code on the back of the card (corresponding to the photo and print that were captured by the consulate and downloaded to CIPRIS). This combination Visa/Identity card would have a master ID number that serves as both the visa and alien identification number.
  14. When the alien travels to and seeks admission to the U.S. at a POE, based on the data-share interfaces (that include the CIPRIS transactions at the Consulate), the Inspector is able to verify the Visa/ID card, passport, and appearance of the alien against the data from CIPRIS (including having scanned the machine readable code on the back of the Visa/ID card that includes the photo and fingerprint appearing on the front face of the card, and matching them to the visa issuance update in CIPRIS). This all electronic process/system affords continual validation and verification, from initial transmission of the eligibility record to CIPRIS from the school/sponsor through to visa application, photo/fingerprint capture and visa/id card issuance at the consulate, and entry at the POE. If the alien is admitted, deferred or denied admission, this action immediately updates the alien's record in CIPRIS, automatically assigning a record transaction number within the system for each action against the master alien ID number (which corresponds to the number on the Visa/ID card) and, at the same time electronically notifying the school/sponsor each action through CIPRIS via the Internet.
  15. Upon enrollment/registration at the school/exchange program, the school/exchange program verifies the identity and bona fides of the alien student by looking at their Visa/ID card against the record of "their" student in CIPRIS, which action automatically electronically notifies CIPRIS via the Internet of the alien's arrival and enrollment in school.
  16. Upon admission by the POE of the student/exchange visitor, or granting of change of status by the Service Center, the CIPRIS system commences a 60-day clock, which monitors the record awaiting electronic file update confirmation from the school or exchange program that the alien has in fact enrolled in school or commenced participation in the exchange program. If CIPRIS receives no such online Visa/ID confirmation check from the school per step 15 above, then CIPRIS automatically flags the record to generate an automatic electronic notice to the school/program directing the school/program to confirm by a date- certain (within 10 business days) that the student/exchange visitor has either enrolled, is a "no show" (or per step 17 below has completed or extended his/her program.)
  17. If the school program confirms that the student did in fact enroll, then CIPRIS would update the record, but would also send a warning notice to the school or program that its failure to confirm the alien's identification against the CIPRIS system within the 60-day required timeframe is a violation of procedure and that repeated violations by the school or program could subject it to having its authorization withdrawn to enroll foreign students and/or exchange visitors.
  18. The CIPRIS system would then monitor each "enrolled" student/exchange visitor record for regular report updates each semester to verify continued enrollment and academic or other standing with each semester/term. It would be designed to receive regular updates from each schools registrar system, so that each change in any foreign students data as entered into the registrars data base would automatically be copied to a special CIPRIS update file for regular update transmission to the national CIPRIS system. This would eliminate the unreliable and fragmented data that comes to the attention of the designated school official often weeks or months after being reported to the registrar. The system would also look to receiving notification of the student/ev having completed or terminated their program within 30 days of program completion date in their record (or within 30 days of the next semester start date if they prematurely terminated and failed to re-register). Failure to receive the completion notification (or extension of program notification) or notification of premature termination from the school/program would result in notices to the school similar to that in steps 16 and 17 above.
  19. If the school program confirms that the student/exchange visitor is a "no show" per item 17 above, or has completed or terminated his/her program per item 18 above, then CIPRIS would automatically flag the case as a "lookout" and would update the appropriate lookout systems to flag the record and update the appropriate lookout systems. Also, CIPRIS would transmit the record to the duty officer's electronic "action queue." In addition, if the record meets criteria for a terrorist threat assessment, the flagged record would also be immediately transmitted to the FBI and DIA duty officer's electronic "action queue" as well.
  20. For any record flagged in CIPRIS as a "no show", "early termination", "failure to depart", etc. the Visa/ID card would immediately be tagged/coded by the system as invalid, so that any attempt by the alien to use the card for purposes of verifying employment authorization, re-entry to the U.S., or status to a local or federal law enforcement officer who has encountered the alien, would be stopped. The CIPRIS system would enable authorized officers to verify the Visa/ID card number by means of dial up computer, check through local law enforcement checks, or via an automated phone/fax back verification process available twenty-for hours a day, seven days a week.

In addition to all of the above, CIPRIS would have a complete relational data base on every school, training program and exchange program, electronic images of DSOs and RO's signatures, and a complete electronic file on each school or program to provide matches on lookouts based on schools and programs suspected of fraud and mala fide activities, that could be quickly checked or flagged prior to visa processing or in connection with any admission to the U.S. or benefit being applied for to the Service.

This program as formulated in 1999 was envisioned to be a joint partnership effort combining the resources and expertise of the INS, Department of State, USIA, Department of Education and Department of Treasury, working in close relationship with eligible schools, universities and exchange programs. As envisioned, a national CIPRIS was a very promising interactive system, and the concepts associated with electronic reporting via the internet was piloted in the Atlanta District with excellent feedback from all participants, public and private. This included the INS Atlanta International Airport POE, the INS Atlanta District headquarters examinations division, the INS Texas Service Center, the Departments of State and the former USIA. Also, 21 pilot institutions located in the states of Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina agreed upon and were active partners.

In October 1999, the month that I retired from over 32 years of government service, the INS suspended active development and development of the national CIPRIS program. No explanation was provided to me since I was no longer a federal employee, and the Headquarters' program leader, Mr. Morrie Berez was removed from his leadership role. The program was placed in a "suspended animation" format, and remained that way until the tragic events of September 11th. In October 2001 the program objectives were revised by the President and Congress and the INS commenced developing a program named the Student/Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), and then changed it to SEVIS which it presently called.

A review of the current SEVIS program and its fact gathering, as well as its foreign student and institutional monitoring capabilities indicates to me a "dumbed down" version of CIPRIS. For example, a review indicates that of the 20 previously identified critical capabilities of CIPRIS, many of those important features have not been included, which I believe undermines the programs objectives. For example, there is no coordination with FinCEN for financial checking of the student's source of funds. Also, if the NIV is issued, and the student is admitted, and does not register within a 30 day period there is no procedure to interview the prospective student or take them into custody. A referral to Investigations in many cases would go unanswered since there is no written policy and minimal resources within Investigations to investigate this action. Also, the current student adjudicating officers have had minimal training, and realize the program will be transferred to BICE within a year. In my opinion, there is no resident expertise within BICE at this time knowledgeable of the rules and regulations governing the student and exchange visitor programs. Additionally, for a school or university to participate in the SEVIS program after the application is filed it must be investigated by a contract investigator who is not a federal employee and lacks knowledge, understanding or mastery of the complex rules governing both foreign students, exchange visitors, and the schools/programs enrolling them. These contracts are now being awarded to contract firms, which send their poorly trained staff members to the schools based upon an I-17 application being filed, to assess their eligibility for participation. Instead of having this done within the 30 day designated time period, it runs now up to 3 months. Also, none of these contract investigators have federal investigator security clearance, nor in many cases any federal investigative experience, and as I said above, they also lack an even rudimentary knowledge and understanding of the rules governing students, schools, exchange visitors and exchange program sponsors.

Also, nothing still precludes non-student non-immigrants from attending courses at school and universities. Non-immigrants in classifications such as B-1, H-4, L-2, E-2 and others can take courses incidental to their authorized stay in the US, and in many if not all of the cases, BCIS would not be informed, aware or knowledgeable of their attendance, as there is no requirement for schools and exchange sponsors to report or track foreign students through SEVIS other than those in the F, J and M nonimmigrant classes.

Additionally, Congress may want to consider amending the Immigration & Nationality Act (INA) to add penalties for non- compliance with the provisions of SEVIS. For example, the INA could include language and provisions to explicitly bar any school, university or training program not authorized by BCIS from admitting, accepting or enrolling foreign students or trainees, under penalty of law and subject to fine. This could be similar to the I-9 employer sanctions process for employers where any employer failing to verify the prospective employees work authorization would be subject to civil/criminal penalties with possible fine. Among the sanctions the schools or training programs could be at risk for would be debarment from Title V Funds in the Higher Education Act, disbarment from being eligible for VA GI Bill Funds, and training schools such as flight schools could have their FAA Certification withdrawn.

There are no requirements for any post-secondary school to report illegal alien students to a system such as SEVIS. The fact that adult aliens over the age of 18 who have somehow gotten into the U.S. can attend any college or vocational school as long as they have the financial means to pay means that an entire population (which may contain individuals wishing to harm the U.S.) is not subject to any reporting by the school to the government.

Finally, I should like to point out, that over 11 million United States Citizen college post secondary students, who receive Federal student financial aid, are electronically reported each semester by the school to the U.S. Department of Education as a condition for continued financial aid. The school reports their academic status, whether they are full time or part time, whether theyre making normal progress towards their degree or certificate, whether they are maintaining good academic standing, etc. I would urge the Congress to re-evaluate and reconsider the relatively inequitable reporting situation, wherein vast numbers of foreign students (legal and illegal) are not subject to monitoring or reporting by schools to the government, while well over 11 million U.S. students receiving Federal financial aid or student loans are reported on by close to 8,000 schools each and every semester.

In closing, it should be noted that the CIPRIS Program was established to be a proactive search engine that would assist all users, but more important, that would flag violations, abnormalities and identify trends that could violate the program objectives. SEVIS, on the other hand, given the way it is configured, appears to be a user friendly database, with no serious or thorough means of ferreting out violators or trends, or cross checking with other pertinent governmental databases.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment.



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