Jul 17 2012

Report: Sham Schools Peddle Student Visas to Foreign Nationals

Senators announce hearing, legislation to stop fraud in student visa program

Washington—U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) today released a report by an independent government watchdog that revealed the federal government has unknowingly permitted sham colleges and universities to award student visas to foreign nationals.

The report, by the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO), warns that the fraud scheme could make the nation vulnerable to potential terrorists seeking to enter the United States.

The report found a “significant number” of schools certified to give out visas to international students are not even certified by the state in which they operate. Of 434 flight schools that provide student visas, an astounding 167—or 38 percent—are not accredited by the Federal Aviation Administration. This finding is especially worrisome since two of the 9/11 hijackers successfully applied for student visas to attend flight schools.

“In late 2000, a foreign student was allowed to enter the United States on a student visa but never attended classes. In 2001, additional foreign travelers were allowed to re-enter the country based on plans to attend a flight school that wasn’t certified to accept foreign students. Those individuals later hijacked four U.S. airliners, killing thousands of Americans,” said Senator Feinstein. “Yet more than a decade later, this GAO report makes it clear that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement still has no process in place to monitor whether foreign students are actually enrolled in school or attending classes, or even whether the schools they claim to attend are legitimate."

The GAO report was requested by the four senators after a high-profile case of a sham school in California surfaced in February 2011. Tri-Valley University had enrolled over 1,500 foreign students until a federal investigation exposed the school as a scam. Tri-Valley officials were caught giving F-1 visas to undercover agents, posing as foreign nationals, who explicitly professed no intention of attending classes. Students paid $5,400 per semester in tuition to the school to obtain those student visas until the school was shut down.

Feinstein continued, “With more than 850,000 foreign students enrolled in 10,000 U.S. schools at the beginning of this year, it’s clear that monitoring activities of students in this country on visas and shutting down sham schools that serve as fronts for criminal activity are questions of national security.”

The GAO report found that the Tri-Valley case is part of a larger trend of sham schools defrauding the student visa program. In the aftermath of 9/11, Congress demanded that the Department of Homeland Security complete an audit of the roughly 10,000 schools in the U.S. that provide student visas. But the report found that eight years after the deadline for the completion of the audit, federal authorities have only recertified 19 percent of visa-issuing schools.

Senator Schumer on Tuesday announced that the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security will be holding a hearing on July 24 to assess Congress’ options for reform of the Student Exchange Visitor Program..

The senators are also introducing legislation to implement many of the GAO report’s recommendations. Among other provisions, the planned bill would require schools and universities to be certified by the state in which they operate before they can issue student visas; require flight schools to be certified by the FAA before they can issue student visas; bar schools from issuing student visas while they are under federal investigation, and; stiffen penalties for officials involved in the operation of sham schools.

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