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President of the American Council on Education's Testimony on SEVIS Implementation

Cite as "AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 03040443 (posted Apr. 4, 2003)"


Statement of David Ward President American Council on Education

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

April 2, 2003

Mr. Chairman, my name is David Ward and I am president of the American Council on Education (ACE). ACE represents 1,800 public and private colleges and universities. I am testifying today on behalf of those institutions as well as the 32 education and exchange visitor organizations listed at the conclusion of my testimony. I have a deep professional interest in the issue that we are discussing today. As the former Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a major research university with 4,500 international students and scholars, I had the privilege of working with international students and scholars every day and saw firsthand the talents and skills they brought to my university and our country. I am also personally interested in this issue - I originally came to the United States as an international student in 1960, earned a Ph.D. and then left, as my visa required me to do. I returned to the U.S. later and became a U.S. citizen in the Bicentennial year of 1976.

The events of September 11th changed much in this country. Many of the policies and practices by which the U.S. welcomes international visitors have been the subject of examination and sustained discussion. We strongly support this review. We believe that the federal government has the responsibility to decide who may receive a visa to enter this country. Colleges and universities can make decisions about the academic suitability of potential students and scholars, but we lack the information to determine whether a specific individual is likely to constitute a security risk. If the federal government determines that a particular individual is a security risk, we do not want them to be allowed into this country and we do not want them on our campuses.

If an individual receives a student or exchange visitor visa, colleges have an obligation to help the federal government monitor them while they are in this country and we have a responsibility to advise them of the terms and conditions of their visas. While we certainly cannot control everything they do, we can help ensure that they remain in status. SEVIS is a vitally important tool in this regard. Indeed, we believe that the implementation of an effective, workable SEVIS is the single best step that the federal government can take to improve our ability to monitor international students and scholars who come to the United States.

I believe that international students and exchange visitor programs are extremely beneficial to this country and that the strongest justification for having such visitors is the benefits the United States derive from having them study in this country. For example, our economy is increasingly based on science and technology. As a result, it is in our economic self-interest to remain the destination of choice for the world`s best minds - students and scholars alike.

This has been the case for the past 30 years and it has benefited this nation dramatically. For example, the rapid developments in information technology that helped fuel the economic growth of the 1990s benefited immeasurably from the international students and scholars from Southeast Asia who studied at American universities in the late 1980s. In the same vein, a central feature of the last decade`s advances in biomedical research that will pave the way for future gains in the quality and length of life are the collaborative efforts between native and foreign- born researchers now taking place in thousands of American laboratories.

Second, in the current global climate, we need more and better efforts to enhance international understanding. One of the best ways to do this is through the everyday classroom discussions that one finds on college and university campuses. Candid discussion enhances familiarity - and familiarity leads to understanding. When international students and exchange visitors return home, they take with them a first-hand understanding of our country and our values. Indeed, some of America`s strongest supporters abroad are those who have spent time in this country as a student or exchange visitor.

Third, international students add diversity to college classrooms. For many native-born students, international students offer the first chance for a sustained friendship with someone born in another country. As the world grows ever smaller, meaningful exposure to international students will better prepare American students to live, communicate, and compete in the global economy.

And finally, the economic benefits of international students and scholars are enormous. According to the Institute for International Education and NASFAA: The Association of International Educators, the nearly 600,000 international students who visit this country every year purchase some $12 billion a year in goods and services. They do this when they pay tuition, rent an apartment, buy a pair of jeans, order a pizza, or go to a movie. Of course, like everyone else, international students and exchange visitors pay taxes on the goods and services they purchase. If they are allowed to work while they are here, they also pay federal and state income tax.

According to the U.S. Commerce Department, higher education is the nation`s fifth largest service-sector export. In an era when many policy makers and economists worry about our huge trade deficit, the presence of international students helps reduce it.

In short, the benefits of international students are unambiguous and overwhelming. So it is no surprise that President Bush has said: ``The United States benefits greatly from international students who study in our country,`` or that he has committed his Administration to ``continue to foster and support international students.``

Secretary of State Colin Powell - no stranger to what is in America`s international interests - says that international education ``encourages and sustains democratic practices, creates a cohort of future leaders who understand each other`s countries from the inside, and promotes long-term linkages between institutions here and abroad.`` The list of foreign heads of state that have studied at an American college is long and distinguished. The State Department has concluded that fully one- half of the world leaders who agreed to support our war on terrorism first came to this country as an international student or exchange visitor.

Colleges and universities are among the most open institutions in our very open society. The openness and the freedom that campuses provide individual students and scholars is a central feature in our widely admired system of higher education. To maintain this openness, we need to make certain that all potential students and researchers come here with the best of intentions, that they remain in compliance with all appropriate laws and regulations, and that we help the appropriate authorities monitor their academic activities and visa status.

But I fear that we are, for a variety of reasons, making it more difficult for international students and scholars to come to our country and to complete their studies, scholarship and research. This is mostly because enormous and complicated efforts have been made in a very short period of time. The result is a complicated set of new regulations, rules and procedures that do not work very well at the present time. Eventually, they will work well, but the damage to our reputation as the destination of choice may be seriously undermined before that happens.

Of particular interest to this Committee is the implementation of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). This is a large and complex information technology system that is designed to link all US embassies and consulates, all INS ports of entry, every institution of higher education that sponsors international students, and every exchange visitor program. Under the Patriot Act, INS was required to have implemented SEVIS. INS required colleges and universities to be in ``full compliance`` by January 30, 2003, a date they later extended to February 15th.

I believe that SEVIS is the single most important step that the federal government can take to improve its ability to monitor international students and exchange visitors and we strongly support its implementation. However, we have repeatedly indicated a concern that this system was being implemented before it was fully operational. Last fall, at separate hearings held by the House Education and the Workforce Committee and the House Judiciary Committee, the higher education community indicated that we did not believe that the SEVIS system would be operational in time for smooth implementation. The Department of Justice Inspector General also expressed doubts about the implementability of SEVIS at both hearings.

Sadly, as we feared, SEVIS was not ready and campuses are confronting enormous difficulties. The simplest way to characterize these problems is to say that the Immigration and Naturalization Service implemented this system before it was fully tested. Campus officials are now dealing with the failure to adequately prepare this system before it was launched.

SEVIS suffers from three serious problems:

First, SEVIS is technologically flawed. Schools report that SEVIS frequently 'loses' data that has been properly entered into the system. Many schools report that their immigration forms have printed out on the computers of other schools. For example, official government immigration forms that Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, attempted to print were later discovered at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina; forms for Michigan State University appeared on the printer at Arizona State University. Most worrisome, perhaps, confidential SEVIS forms printed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory - a secure government installation - were printed at a school in San Francisco. Although INS claims to have fixed this problem - known as ``bleeding`` - we learned from at least one campus official that it continues. Batch processing, which schools need to submit large amounts of data, works intermittently at best. Some schools have not been able to make batch processing work at all and at other schools it works intermittently. Finally, unlike any other information technology I have worked with, SEVIS does not allow errors that may occur to be corrected, even typographical mistakes.

These technological flaws can have serious consequences for students. Consider this very recent example: an international student advisor submitted an I-20 form to enable a student to apply for Optional Practical Training. Although the form was filled out correctly, SEVIS lost (or did not ``capture``) two pieces of required information - the dates the training would start and finish. This error could not be corrected by the school. Thirty days ago, the school contacted the SEVIS help desk (Level 1) and was issued a ticket (or a receipt) acknowledging the problem. On March 4, the SEVIS help desk (Level 2) called and asked for more information, which was provided that same day.

Despite daily phone calls to the SEVIS help desk, this student`s case remains unresolved. The campus director of International Education recently wrote to me: ``Both the student and the department have a difficult time understanding that there is nothing that can be done to correct the issue. I have a difficult time explaining that I am doing everything I possibly can. The student has an amazing job lined up at a leading worldwide financial services firm and will lose his job if this problem cannot be corrected in time. Will SEVIS be corrected? Will he lose his job? I do not know what else I can tell the student or his program directors.``

Second, contrary to promises, SEVIS does not provide real-time access to data. SEVIS was designed to link schools, the State Department and the INS in real time. This is a reasonable goal for an electronic information system. Unfortunately, SEVIS does not yet provide these linkages in a timely fashion. For an extended period in February, no data was transmitted because the INS did not configure the system to transmit data automatically and failed to do a manual transmission of the data. Some embassies and consulates find that it takes a week or longer for them to access data entered into SEVIS. This means that students arrive at an embassy - sometimes after traveling a great distance - only to be told (incorrectly) that their data has not been entered into SEVIS and that they may not apply for a visa. In fact, their data is in SEVIS - that`s the only way they could receive an I-20 form - but the SEVIS data has not been forwarded to the consulate. The bottom line is the same - without timely consular access to the SEVIS data, a student or scholar may not apply for a visa. These delays cause confusion and frustration for embassies, students and schools.

Third, the INS has not provided adequate training to anyone. Training is critical for the successful implementation of any new information technology system, yet the INS has provided almost no training to campus officials or even to its own staff. One campus official recently visited an INS regional service center and learned that the center did not know how to identify SEVIS documents and had not been provided with any training. The campus official was asked to help INS officials understand what they were supposed to do. Regional INS officials have not been adequately trained and therefore often provide different answers to the same questions.

INS's SEVIS Help desk can answer technical questions about the SEVIS system but is unable to answer regulatory questions. As a result, school officials are left to interpret the regulations on their own. Moreover, the help desk is understaffed and badly overworked. It typically takes more than four weeks to resolve a problem involving a single student.

Two factors make this situation even more worrisome. First, the volume of information in SEVIS is about to increase dramatically. Between now and August 1, we conservatively estimate that an additional one million records - approximately 250,000 per month - will need to be entered in SEVIS. We do not believe there is any chance that SEVIS will be able to accommodate this huge surge of information and are deeply concerned that it will play havoc with students, colleges, universities, and consular and immigration offices, alike.

Second, the federal government still has not published the regulations specifying how the SEVIS fee will be collected. Under the law, potential international students must be registered in SEVIS and they must pay a SEVIS fee. The government has not yet begun to collect the fee but there are indications that it plans to do so in the very near future. While no regulations have been published, we understand that the fee collection process will be totally separate from the process by which students are listed in SEVIS. Moreover, fee collection will reportedly rely on traditional mail and paper receipts and thus dramatically undermines the promise that SEVIS would be an entirely electronic system.

We have proposed ways to simplify the collection of this fee but federal agencies have been unwilling to consider them. We believe that adding a poorly designed paper based fee collection process to a poorly functioning SEVIS system at the same time that the volume increases sharply is a prescription for disaster.

I emphasize that the federal government must decide who receives a visa to study in the United States. International students and scholars who are of concern to the government should not receive a visa. Speaking as a former university president and a devout supporter of international education and scientific research, I do not want any individuals on a college campus if the government has any reasonable concerns about them. I do not want them in our nation`s classrooms, dormitories, laboratories, or libraries. I do not want them to have access to scientific equipment or even to extracurricular activities.

But the U.S. economy is fueled by innovations in science, engineering and technology. Given the innovation-driven nature of our economy, it is important that the U.S. continue to remain the destination of choice for the world`s best students and scholars.

Obviously in the new world in which we live, the government must put new security procedures and policies in place. We support these efforts and we have and will continue to work with the government to meet security needs. We understand that it will take some time before new policies and procedures begin to operate smoothly. At the same time, unfortunately, some of the steps we have taken are counterproductive, unworkable and uncoordinated. The costs associated with these new policies are higher than desirable and necessary. We fear that some of the new policies and procedures may well make the nation a less desirable and welcoming place for international students and scholars and this will force some students to choose to go elsewhere. The loss to our economy and our scientific enterprise will be incalculable and profound.

We believe that there are several measures that could be taken right now to address a number of the current and future problems with SEVIS:
The SEVIS fee collection system needs to be rethought to simplify collection and to avoid yet another complex system plagued by delay and lost information. The issue is not whether there is a fee or how much the fee will be. The issue is whether INS will launch an unworkable system. We believe that there are ways to streamline fee collection but these steps would require collaboration between INS and the State Department, collaboration that the State Department has been unwilling to provide. Most importantly, this needs to be fixed now, before INS launches it.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) would like to have access to SEVIS to verify work authorization before issuing social security numbers. Giving them such access would reduce the administrative burden on colleges and would improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the SSA. However, INS has been unwilling to give SSA access to the system. We strongly recommend that the INS give SSA access to SEVIS as soon as possible.
The State Department should use the SEVIS system to ensure real time access of data. Currently, the State Department runs the SEVIS data through their own system instead of using the secured Internet-based interface. This often results in the loss of data and undermines the promise of a single computer system used by all parties.

Campuses - specifically Designated School Officials (DSOs) - should be given broader access to SEVIS in order to correct clerical errors in the initial form. (For example, a field of study change, correction of gender, name spelling.) Minor changes should not require direct involvement by the INS to correct, especially since it commonly takes four weeks or more to make the correction.

Mr. Chairman, I would like to thank you and the members of the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims for holding this hearing on the development and implementation of SEVIS and the impact on U.S. campuses. I wish to assure you and the members of this Committee our strong commitment to the implementation of SEVIS. But, to do this, we ask that our campuses be given the tools and the regulatory guidance to achieve this goal while ensuring that international student and scholars are not discouraged from study and research in the U.S. Thank you for the opportunity to testify this morning.