INS Officials Tell Congress They Have Little Information on Foreign Students

INS Officials Tell Congress They Have Little Information on Foreign Students

 

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Thursday, November 1, 2001

 

By DAN CURRY

 

Washington

 

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has no way of estimating how many foreigners who entered the United States on student visas might still be residing here illegally, an agency official said Wednesday at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing.

 

Representatives of the INS and the State Department testified before the subcommittees on Select Education and on

21st-Century Competitiveness on the need for greater information-sharing between law-enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Both said they lacked the systems and resources to have intercepted Hani Hanjour, one of the suspected terrorists in the

September 11 attacks, who used a student visa to enter the United States but never showed up for classes at an

English-as-a-second-language program in Oakland, Calif., owned by Berlitz International.

 

Michael Becraft, acting deputy commissioner of the INS, said that INS officials also would not readily know if a foreigner who arrived on a student visa actually began taking classes, and would not know if a student dropped out. Even if they had that information, he said, the agency would lack the personnel to locate and apprehend the person.

 

"The INS recognizes that it is vulnerable to both inaccurate data and fraud at various stages of the [visa] process," Mr. Becraft said. "Although the INS currently maintains limited records on foreign students and is able to access that information on demand, that information is on old technology platforms that are insufficient for today's need for rapid access."

 

Mary A. Ryan, the State Department's assistant secretary for consular affairs, said that U.S. consulates in foreign countries run each visa applicant's name through a database that will flag the name if it matches any on a list of suspected terrorists or criminals provided by U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. But the database is only as strong as the information it contains, Ms. Ryan said. It flagged none of the 19 hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks.

 

Mr. Becraft and Ms. Ryan both testified in favor of accelerating the use of a computerized foreign-student-tracking system, known as the Student Exchange Visitor Information System, which would monitor the whereabouts and enrollment status of foreign students in the United States. The system would fill many of the security gaps that now plague the INS's paper-based system, Mr. Becraft said.

 

Lawmakers have made reforming the nation's visa system a priority since the September 11 attacks. At the hearing

Wednesday, they were at times left speechless by how little information the INS kept on foreign students. Rep. George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, sat dumbfounded for a few moments after Mr. Becraft described how little is known about a foreign students' activities once they enter the country. That information, Mr. Becraft said, is buried in mountains of unprocessed paperwork.

 

"What the hell is going on there?" asked Mr. Miller, of California. "The genius of terrorists is that they analyze systems for weaknesses. There's no sense of due diligence here."

 

But other lawmakers defended the INS and the State Department, pointing out that both were operating with limited resources.

 

Rep. Lynn N. Rivers, a Michigan Democrat, noted that Congress had been trimming agency payrolls in recent years to streamline government. But "we always want bigger government when we're afraid," she said.

 

Ms. Ryan said that financing the computerized student-tracking system would be the quickest, most cost-efficient improvement that Congress could authorize to respond to the security risks posed by foreign students. The Bush administration has requested $11.7-million to finance the first-year costs of the system. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and college lobbying groups are calling for $36-million to finance the system.

 

Higher-education officials at the hearing reiterated their position since the September 11 attacks that although they support increased monitoring of foreign students at their institutions, they object to making each student pay a $95 fee to support the tracking system. Such a cost would be a barrier to those students' enrolling in American colleges, they said, arguing that the tracking system should be completely federally financed.

 

"Because the program is addressing a national priority -- reduction of the risk of terrorism -- we think that the annual operating funds ought to be provided through an annual appropriation to the Immigration and Naturalization Service rather than by imposing a fee on students, as the law currently envisions," said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education.

 

Of the 31.4 million visas issued in 1999, 570,000 -- or less than 2 percent -- were student visas, Mr. Ward said.

 

He and Mr. Becraft traded accusations of blame for slowing down the creation of the computerized tracking system. Mr. Ward said that INS had never been sensitive to the concerns of education groups, so they had had to turn to "Congress to get straightforward administrative matters resolved." Mr. Becraft, in turn, cited education groups for stalling over the issue of the fee.

 

Rep. Patsy T. Mink, a Hawaii Democrat, noted that because they are tracked by their host institutions, foreign students already receive more monitoring than people entering the country on other types of visas. "Few other visitors in this country endure this kind of scrutiny," she said.

 

Copyright 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education