The Little Agency that Won't (SEVP) Needs a Literate, Honest Budget Writer

By David North on March 20, 2014

I am not sure that I am a fan of deconstructionism, a school of literary criticism that I frankly do not understand very well, but if it means very careful scrutiny of a piece of writing, well, that is exactly what the proposed budget for the Student and Exchange Visitor Program needs, and needs badly.

SEVP is the sleepy government agency that is supposed to manage a million or so foreign students in the nation. Some of these students will become leaders of their nations several decades hence; many will return to their home countries after (one hopes) a good experience in America. Still others will stay on as immigrants, some will become illegal immigrants and the odd one or two have been known to fly airplanes into our tallest buildings. It is quite a mix.

SEVP, thus, faces massive, serious, and inevitable challenges in its basic mission, that of sorting through the various foreign students who want to come to this country. It is a stepchild of a much larger agency, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

SEVP also faces a far more manageable challenge, however: explaining to Congress what it plans to do with federal funds. It is not that SEVP needs one of "best and brightest" foreign students the mas-migration advocates fuss over, it just needs one of Lake Woebegone's storied above-average residents. Someone who can write a simple, honest sentence in English.

Let me explain.

While looking over the SEVP pages in the newly released, monster (3,000-plus pages) DHS budget for FY 2015, I came across a four-sentence paragraph. The first two sentences are direct and understandable, while the third is serviceable, despite a split verb:

In FY 2015, ICE requests $145 million, 387 positions, and 355 FTE for SEVP. This is the same authority level requested in FY 2014.

"FTE" stands for full-time equivalent, meaning that some of the 387 positions will be filled by part-time workers. "Authority" in this case means "spending". So far, so good. Then:

ICE will predominantly expend prior year balances and some FY 2015 fee collections to fund SEVP payroll and operations in FY 2015.

SEVP is 100 percent funded by fees paid by foreign students, and these funds can be carried over from year to year, which is not true of most activities supported by taxes. Whether these funds are being used effectively to enforce immigration law, the subject of a CIS Backgrounder of more than a year ago, is a troublesome subject that might be clarified by the budget text, or might not.

The first 10 words of the fourth sentence are accurate, and then the text sinks into the abyss:

Prior year carryover balances are funds collected, but not spent due to sequestration (SEVP must carry over the amount sequestered each year), delays in planned acquisitions, recruitment of field representatives and school recertification analysts, and to allow SEVP to have funds in the first two quarters of the next fiscal year when SEVP fee collections are at their lowest.

The phrase "collected, but not spent due to sequestration" is misleading, because one of the main faults of this agency, for at least half a dozen years, is that it does not use funds available to it from student fees to enforce the immigration act, as we pointed out in the above-mentioned CIS Backgrounder in some detail. Sequestration, a relatively recent development, may have complicated the situation, but the non-spending-on-enforcement problem was not created by sequestration.

Ah, but we are only part way through the offending sentence. After "...sequestered each year)" there appears to be a missing phrase or sentence. Perhaps it should have been, or was, written (with the added words underlined) as follows:

The non-use of these carryover balances causes delays in planned acquisitions, recruitment of field representatives, and school recertification analysts, but the balances do allow SEVP to have funds in the first two quarters of the next fiscal year when SEVP fee collections are at their lowest.

As we have reconstructed the second part of the sentence, it makes both factual and grammatical sense.

In the earlier CIS study we pointed out that SEVP has consistently under-utilized funds available to it to enforce the law, presumably because the Obama administration is not very interested in that kind of activity. The 2013 budget message suggests that SEVP had, at the time, reserves of more than $135 million, enough money to run the agency for nearly a full year.

In the 2014 budget, SEVP asked for a fraction of that surplus ($25 million) and got it. Similarly, in the 2015 budget it retains the same request. Since the number of foreign students keeps climbing, and since the fees they pay are increasing similarly, we can be sure that the $50 million in additional funds leaves a surplus of at least $85 million, and probably much more. The size of that surplus, clearly visible in the 2013 budget, cannot be found in the 2015 version. Accident?

Only if the agency spends down its surplus (preferably by actually enforcing the immigration law) can it ask that the student fee of $200 be raised, which it could then use for still more enforcement — all without costing any citizen or permanent resident a dime. This prospect, presumably an unattractive one to the administration, is not so much as mentioned in the budget.

The Story So Far. Let's return to the awkward text. We have shown that the budget not only has key words and concepts missing, it is hiding from the readers (including Congress) that SEVP spends far less than it could on immigration enforcement. That, however, is not the end of the errors and misleading statements.

Later on the same page (p. 1445) of the budget we find this sentence:

Every two years, SEVP recertifies participating schools in accordance with the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002.

No, it doesn't.

Every two years it is supposed to recertify all the foreign-student serving schools, but it has never done so in a two-year period, according to the 2012 report on SEVP by the Government Accountability Office.

Later on the same page we are told:

As of February 17, 2014, ICE recertified 6,824 schools and withdrew certification for 2,037 schools. There are also 1,128 schools that SEVP is recertifying and 96 schools that have received certification end dates.

We are given the ending date (February 17, 2014), but not the starting date for recertifying the schools. How long has that process been going on? Since the beginning of time? Since the founding of the nation? This is a sleazy way to handle numbers.

How do the 1,128 schools that SEVP "is recertifying" mesh with the 6,824 mentioned in the prior clause? Is it to be added to the earlier total, or subtracted from it? Note the jarring verbs in the sentence: "is recertifying" and "have received certification end dates". Can't we have consistency on small items like that?

I suspect that the squishy term "have received certification end dates" means decertified, and that unusual fate only happens when a questionable school fights the agency. I further suspect that the 2,037 withdrawals are cases in which the school simply did not file papers and made no efforts to keep their certification. Thousands of SEVP-certified schools have no foreign students.

We at CIS have seen — and we looked very hard — only about one SEVP rejection of a visa mill a year in recent years, while comparable agencies in much smaller nations like the UK and New Zealand have been much more vigorous when faced by the same challenges. Maybe in those countries the budget documents are also more transparent than in the case of SEVP's.

To summarize:

Does SEVP realize that it is not doing its duty? It probably hides that reality from itself.

Is it incapable of writing carefully to hide its very real failings? Evidently.

Does it care about either of these two problems? Obviously not much.