Student tracking system falters in its early rollout

'Problems become magnified when systems are in the public eye.'

'Bureau CIO Scott Hastings

Henrik G. DeGyor

Immigration bureau moving quickly to get fixes in place

Facing criticism for the rushed deployment of a foreign-student tracking system, Homeland Security Department officials say the program is on track despite some technical hiccups.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, which the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has deployed at 4,300 U.S. colleges, has experienced numerous technical glitches. Some examples include timing out too quickly, freezing up, not saving information and printing out the documents of one school on another school's printers.

The problems have drawn fire from Congress and its audit agency, the General Accounting Office. In recent months, lawmakers have held a series of hearings to discuss SEVIS.

One criticism, laying some of the blame on lawmakers, was that following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress forced the bureau'part of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service'to field SEVIS too quickly.

But bureau CIO Scott Hastings disagreed with this claim. SEVIS is one of the most public IT systems run by the government, he said, and it was critically important to roll out the tracking program, which collects and shares immigration information about foreign students and professors studying and working at U.S. schools.

'If the mandate hadn't been from Congress, it would have come from the administration or our executive commissioner,' said Hastings, who was INS' systems chief before the agency became part of Homeland Security. 'This was not a system we would have developed on a relaxed schedule, if there is such a thing.'

1993 attack

Congress first mandated that INS set up the system after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

When terrorists struck in 2001, lawmakers moved the completion date from 2005 to Jan. 1, 2003, said a House Science Committee staff member. It allocated an additional $36.8 million to help INS meet the deadline.

After the bureau experienced some technical difficulties, Congress pushed to Feb. 15 the deadline for colleges and universities to connect to SEVIS.

Although Hastings was quick to shoulder responsibility for most SEVIS problems, others spread the blame around.

'We complained last year that this would not work because they hadn't done enough piloting and software modeling, but Congress mandated it must be done in nine months, and it just doesn't work,' said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education. 'SEVIS can be fixed, and it is a good idea, but there needs to be more communication between the government and colleges and universities on what needs to be done to solve the problems.'

Hastings told lawmakers his bureau has made significant progress in resolving system errors.
As an example, Hastings said, contractor EDS Corp. recently figured out what was causing the printing problem, which seemed to be the most confounding glitch.

'There was a piece of code being shared by users, and the code could hold only one set of information at a time,' he said. 'We have tested the fix and got no errors. We still have more testing to do but are confident the problem will be solved soon.'

First Web app

Hastings said SEVIS is the first entirely Web-accessible application rolled out by his systems group.

The app was developed using Sun Microsystem's Java2 Enterprise Edition and Extensible Markup Language schemas that let schools transmit student data in batches over a secure Justice Department Internet connection. Hastings said data is stored in an Oracle9 database on an IBM P660 server running AIX.

Schools access the system via Web browser and authenticate their identities using digital certificates from VeriSign Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif.

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