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Lawmaker Calls for More Training To Improve Student Visa Program

Lawmaker Calls for More Training To Improve Student Visa Program
By Charles Dervarics

College and federal employees need more training to make the nation’s new student visa system work effectively, says a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Amid mounting concern about the new Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), the U.S. House of Representatives has approved a plan from Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, to earmark more spending to SEVIS training. Critics say the new visa system that took effect Jan. 1 has been hampered by data problems and lack of training among federal employees, their contractors and colleges.

Colleges and universities “want to do the right thing,” says Jackson-Lee. “But they cannot do it without the right training.”

Her plan would add $10 million for SEVIS training as part of an emergency spending bill on the war in Iraq and homeland security.

Jackson-Lee’s amendment follows two hearings on Capitol Hill that revealed the extent of debate about the new program’s effectiveness.

“The new federal system for monitoring international students and exchange visitors does not work as promised,” says Dr. David Ward, president of the American Council on Education. In a hearing before the House Science Committee, Ward said SEVIS is plagued by inconsistent and inefficient implementation, as well as technological problems.

“SEVIS was not ready and campuses are confronting enormous difficulties,” he says. Problems include lack of final regulations on fee collection, inadequate training for college, as well as U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service staff responsible for the system. “The INS has not provided adequate training to anyone,” he says.

One particular concern, Ward says, is that the system sometimes “loses” data that college officials believe was properly entered into the system. Such information can pop up at other campuses. In one example, according to Ward, confidential SEVIS forms from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a secure government installation managed by the California Institute of Technology, were printed out at a proprietary school in San Francisco.

But immigration officials said at a separate congressional hearing that SEVIS is operating smoothly. While the new system has faced challenges, “most problems are quickly addressed and resolved,” says Johnny Williams, interim director for immigration interior enforcement at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In March, the system closed briefly to make technical fixes so that schools could complete data entry tasks in a timely way. Williams acknowledges that some information has printed out at other schools but said a contractor is working on the problem.

“Any new system will have bugs and anomalies that must be addressed,” he says. “SEVIS is a new system, developed and deployed under an aggressive schedule.”

The U.S. Department of Justice inspector general, Glenn Fine, says federal immigration officials have made “significant progress” in implementing SEVIS. Even though the INS said the system would be entirely operational in early 2003, Fine says the new program is “not yet fully implemented.”

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