Department of Justice Seal

Attorney General Transcript
News Conference - SEVIS
May 10, 2002
DOJ Conference Center

ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Good afternoon. The United States of America is unique among the nations of the world for the welcome that we extend. We accommodate generously those who wish to work here, to study here, those who wish someday to become citizens. And we place only limited conditions on our welcome, that those who come to America to share in our desire to breath freely, to live peacefully, to respect the rights and the dignity of their neighbors, respect their fellow Americans -- these are the conditions we ask.

     It is the responsibility of the Justice Department to guard zealously this welcome, to ensure that the United States remains a beacon of freedom and a hallmark of opportunity to the world. Part of this responsibility is to protect the nation and its citizens from those who seek to enter our country under false pretenses. The United States of America will not allow our welcome to be abused by those who disguise themselves and their intentions. We will ensure that visitors observe time limits, that students study peaceably, and that our immigration laws are accorded the same respect that we strive to extend to our guests who come to visit this country.

     Today, I'm announcing a new system for tracking the more than 1 million foreign individuals who are in the United States attending our colleges, universities and trade schools.

     For too long, our student visa system has been a slow, antiquated, paper-driven reporting system incapable of ensuring that those who enter the United States as students are in fact attending our educational institutions. Today, we begin the process of bringing our student visa system into the 21st century. We are taking advantage of the latest in technology to link colleges and universities to the Immigration and Naturalization Service in a centralized, rapid-access reporting system. Schools will be accountable for confirming the status of student visa holders. The Immigration and Naturalization Service will be accountable for enforcing violations of that status. And the American people will gain a measure of assurance that students visiting our country are who they purport to be.

     I want to thank INS Commissioner Jim Ziglar for his personal commitment to developing and implementing these necessary reforms. And Commissioner Ziglar would have been here, but he is currently in Vermont negotiating agreements with the Canadian government regarding our northern border. I thank him for his leadership.

     On April the 12th, we published a rule that prevents those who enter the United States on visitors visas from becoming students until the INS approves their change in immigration status. Today, I am submitting for public comment a new regulation that will implement the Student Exchange and Visitor Information System, or SEVIS -- S-E-V-I- S. This system has been under development by the INS for several years pursuant to a law passed in Congress in the mid-'90s. Schools are currently required to submit information to the INS to ensure that foreign students are indeed students. This information includes whether a student has enrolled; whether the student may have dropped out; or whether the student was expelled from the institution.

     SEVIS will make this information available centrally to the INS in a database. And perhaps most importantly, it will allow schools to transmit the information electronically via the Internet.

     Rapid access to current complete information on foreign students will improve dramatically the INS's capability to enforce immigration laws and keep track of this group of non-citizens in the United States.

     We developed this rule in consultation with representatives of our colleges and universities, and we appreciate their valuable contribution and cooperation. SEVIS makes the schools our partners in preserving the integrity of our student visa system and the safety of the American people.

     There are three basic problems that SEVIS will correct dramatically. First, we do not currently have a system that efficiently verifies if a student is in fact studying at an educational institution. Under the SEVIS regulations, schools will be notified when a student arrives at a port of entry and will be required to report to the INS if the student fails to appears for enrollment.

     Second, under the current paper-based system, a significant time lag exists between an event taking place, such as a student dropping out of school, and the INS receiving the information.

     Under the SEVIS regulations, schools are required to notify the INS electronically of such events, providing timely information on a student's status. SEVIS will also obligate school officers to report each term whether a student is still attending.

     Third, SEVIS will also help to reduce visa fraud in the international student program. Under the current system, student visa forms are subject to theft and are often sold and used to support fraudulent visa applications. SEVIS will solve this problem by cancelling the unused forms and taking them out of circulation.

     INS plans to begin implementation of SEVIS on a voluntary basis with institutions of learning on July 1st of this year. Under the proposed rule, participation will become mandatory by January 30th of next year.

     Allowing foreign students to study here is one of the ways we convey our valuable -- values and our principles to those who will return to lead their countries. In making these reforms, we protect our commitment to welcoming and accommodating those who come to America to study in our institutions.

     I thank you, and I'd be pleased to answer questions. Yes, sir?

     Q Attorney General, does the department know how many of these 1 million purported students are actually going to school now? Do you have some kind of an estimate of how big of a problem it is?

     ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, I don't think I'm prepared to give you a number. What I am prepared to say is that when we have this timely reporting that can be accurately verified and measured against the visas that have been issued, the integrity of our operation will skyrocket. It will be a dramatic increase.


     Q Attorney General, an official from a now-defunct Arizona flight school is saying that she called the FAA on three occasions in January or February of 2001 to express very serious concerns about Hani Hanjour, who later went on to be one of the hijackers, and that later got a call back from one of the FAA officials to say, "Your worst nightmare has been realized." Do you know anything about this incident? And what can you say about it?

     ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I don't.

     Q Is it something that should be further investigated?

     ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I'd be pleased to include information like this in our investigation, but it's not something with which I'm familiar.

     Yes, sir.

     Q With the rulings in Michigan, New Jersey and New York, I wonder if there is some concern here at the Justice Department that at least judges are beginning to believe that the Justice Department's going too far in its investigations -- that its tactics are too secretive and too aggressive and that you may be violating individual rights. Is there any feeling in the Justice Department that that's so?

     ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: We believe that we have conducted this investigation in complete accord with the constitutional guidelines -- obviously, the rules of the constitution, the principles of it, and within the limits and proposed guidelines in specific legislation. We believe that the position taken by the Justice Department is in each case a sound position, and there is serious and substantial legal precedent to support the procedures used by the Department.

     Yes, sir.

     Q Sir, you can give us an indication of the direction that the investigation is taking into the four students detained in Norfolk and the one in Northern Virginia for fraudulent English-proficiency exams? ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: We had a very substantial effort. I think it resulted in a complaint against -- with -- of about -- naming about 144 individuals for fraudulently providing a basis for certifying individuals as English-proficient so that they could gain visas as students into the country. When individuals substitute themselves for other individuals in taking tests in order to provide certification or a basis for certification, that's a serious matter. Over 60 arrests have been made, and we will continue the investigation with intensity. I'm not prepared to or (sic) should I make comments about specific cases within the framework of this investigation.

     Q Mr. Hanssen was sentenced today. Do you have any final word that you'd like to share on the life sentence that was given to Mr. Hanssen in federal court today, sir?

     ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Robert Hanssen was trained and trusted by Americans and by our American government to sustain, support and secure the safety of America. He used the training and abused the trust in a way which threatened the safety and security of America. And I'm pleased that this chapter in American history has been closed on this day.

     STAFF: Last question.

     Q Do you believe that Mr. Hanssen cooperated fully with the debriefers? Did he tell them the truth?

     ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Mr. Hanssen's sentencing today reflects the belief of the investigating agencies that there was substantial compliance by Mr. Hanssen in his responsibility to cooperate as a part of this sentencing.

     Thank you very much.