In its own, understated way a congressional watchdog agency has lambasted the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for sloppy management of widespread fraud in the international student business.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) last month issued a quietly blistering report with a typically bland GAO title: "Student and Exchange Visitor Program: DHS Needs to Assess Risks and Strengthen Oversight Functions" (GAO-12-572).
The report deals with the eligibility of American colleges and training institutions (many of the latter are private, for-profit entities) to issue the I-20 form, which leads to the granting of F-1, J-1, and M-1 visas. It comes at about the same time as a similarly critical GAO report was filed on a different set of DHS failings in a similar, but narrower field, the use by unauthorized aliens of America's pilot training schools as described by my colleague W. D. Reasoner in a recent blog.
In general terms, the GAO report deals with the licensing of educational institutions to issue I-20s for the listed visas. There is no stateside scrutiny of the individual 1-20s, which record the fact that the educational institution has, in fact, admitted the alien named. If there is any screening it is done overseas by our overworked consular officials; that screening focuses on the individual alien, not on the institution issuing the I-20. Hence it is critical that only genuine educational institutions issue that document.
Unfortunately the government has allowed the list of such institutions to grow to the huge number of 10,000, each of which may issue the I-20. And even more unfortunately the GAO report shows that fully one-eighth of these institutions are not accredited.
When one recalls how sloppy the accreditation process can be at the bottom of the academic ladder, this is an appalling situation. Academic accrediting organizations are not public bodies; they are membership associations and if your institution is really, really bad the brethren institutions may eject you from the club, or they may not.
In one recent case near where I live, the University of Northern Virginia (UNV) was raided by ICE agents who found many problems, but did not close the institution (its owner also ran some Chinese grocery stores). According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, UNV is
[A]ccredited by the American University Accreditation Council, which is not recognized by the [U.S.] Department of Education. The address listed as the Council's headquarters is an auto-body repair shop owned by the chairman of Northern Virginia's board. A caller to the number listed on the accreditor's web site was greeted with the following message Thursday evening: "This is D'Angelo, so get at me back."
Despite this glaring conflict of interest — the chair of UNV, whatever his linguistic skills, was also at least on the board or the staff of the non-accepted accrediting organization — DHS allowed the place to re-open after the raid. (This is not mentioned in the GAO report.)
Bear in mind that UNV is an accredited organization in the eyes of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and there are over 1,000 institutions without even the kind of fig leaf used by UNV.
The GAO report examines at some length the entity that DHS uses to (more or less) supervise the I-20 issuing institutions; this is a subset of ICE that runs the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). This in turn manages a big information system listing the 10,000 or so institutions, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).
The problems are numerous. As the GAO report indicates (on p. 10):
ICE has not conducted an analysis to assess how to allocate resources based on risk to help ensure that SEVP resources are targeted to the highest-risk program activities…
In blunter language, GAO found that ICE was a largely "reactionary" agency (GAO-speak for one that reacts rather than plans) and that it has done nothing to sort through its reams of data to figure out what educational institutions are likely to be violating the law. You might say that GAO found ICE sleeping on the job, but you have to read between the lines to come to that conclusion.
GAO hints at what such a threat scenario would look like, but unfortunately it does not spell it out. What I read into the report is that institutions that are unaccredited; private, for-profit; and engage in flight, religious, or language instruction, are more likely to be abusing the law than others. Additional indicators of potential problems include lack of specificity about the citizenship status of the institution's official who works with ICE and other incomplete filings with SEVIS.
It would have been nice if GAO, with all of its brainpower and resources, had spelled out for ICE what these dangers are, preferably quantitatively, but largely it chose not to do so. I must add, however, that mentioning that religious institutions (or those claiming that role) played a disproportionate role in these problems is commendable for what is otherwise a very cautious agency.
Here's what GAO did say on the subject:
For example, of the 172 post-secondary institutions on SEVP's December 2011 compliance case log [apparently a list of troublesome cases] about 83 percent (or 142) offer language, religious, or flight studies, with language schools representing the highest proportion. CTECU [an enforcement entity] identified, and shared with SEVP officials other potential indicators of higher-risk schools based on prior school fraud cases, including school location/type of campus; the ratio of foreign students to overall students; the ratio of enrolled students to reported average annual number of students; the concentration of online courses; and the average length of time that students, particularly foreign language students, have been in the United States.
GAO's point was that ICE did not use such information to organize its enforcement activities, though it has agreed to do so in the future.
GAO also notes that there are many communication gaps and educational institutions rejected by accrediting agencies are not quickly eliminated from the SEVIS listing. Worse, sometimes SEVP officials handle their relations with educational outfits in ways that screw up ongoing criminal investigations.
Despite the presence of "exchange visitor" in the title of the report, I saw nothing in the document that related to those programs, which have many problems of their own, notably in the summer work program, as reported by my colleague Jerry Kammer in a CIS Paper on the subject, Cheap Labor as Cultural Exchange: The $100 Million Summer Work Travel Industry.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the GAO report was in an almost throwaway line, in which GAO noted that ICE had a "carryover cash balance" of $105 million in October of last year. So there can be no argument, as there often is with the Obama administration, that there are insufficient resources to truly enforce the immigration law.
The SEVP process in ICE is totally funded by fees paid by both students and the schools and ICE has usually collected far more in fees than it has spent on the school enforcement program. Does this mean that ICE still has that money in some bank account, or does it mean that the Office of Management and Budget and DHS have diverted the fee income into other channels? Or some of both? GAO does not explain.
The report is due to be discussed at a Senate immigration subcommittee hearing today and perhaps some of these mysteries will be solved at that time.