The New York Times
June 17, 2002
When the Immigration and Naturalization Service notified a Florida aviation school in March that two of the Sept. 11 hijackers were approved for student status, it became a bitter symbol of the department's ineptitude. Investigations and public confessions revealed that the I.N.S. didn't know if foreign students attended classes, nor if schools certified to accept these students were even open.
Such poor management isn't new. The technology to prevent student visa fraud was demanded by Congress after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. It got bogged down two years ago, however, because colleges and John Ashcroft, then a senator, opposed having schools collect student fees to finance the system. Sadly, it took the horrors of Sept. 11 for Congress to invest $36.8 million in making the paper route a digital one.
Starting next month, some schools will be able to use the computerized program, known as the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or Sevis. This will eventually put thousands of colleges and trade schools in communication with the I.N.S. and embassies. While the new system will most likely have glitches, it will be a good step forward. At the same time, we should be realistic about the reaches of this new program. Thirteen of the 19 hijackers entered the country on tourist visas. Foreign students account for only 2 percent of foreign visitors.
A computer program also won't ensure properly trained personnel. I.N.S. officials failed to look at their database when changing the visa status for Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, the two hijackers. Had they looked, they would have found that the men had left the country and lost their rights to student visas.
Officials also need to be better trained in certifying schools permitted to accept foreign students. When the Justice Department's inspector general office looked at 200 of these schools, it found that 43 percent were not operating, and some had lost the accreditation they had used to get I.N.S. approval in the first place. A number of I.N.S. officials, however, did not know that interviews with school representatives were required.
Blunders like these underscore the need to invest in training for school administrators as well. The two hijackers actually instructed the official at the aviation school how to fill out the required paperwork since she didn't know how. As it stands now, schools must have at least one official and, inexplicably, a maximum of five to approve the I-20 forms needed for a student visa. It falls on the school, however, to decide how many trained staff members it devotes to foreign students.
There should be a mandated limit to the number of foreign students served by any one administrator and the I.N.S. should offer training to those school officials as well as their own employees. Even the best technology will be weakened without thorough instruction, leaving the system vulnerable to abuse and unresponsive to foreign students.