Overstays Study Suggests Need to Overhaul the Foreign Student Program

By David North on May 25, 2017

Foreign students are more than twice as likely to overstay their visas as nonimmigrants coming to the United States generally.

That's an obvious but unremarked take-away from the "Fiscal Year 2016 Entry/Exit Overstay Report" just issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Using a statistical ratio based on the report, one out of 36 entrants with F, J, or M visas do not go home when their visas expire.

The overall ratio, for all nonimmigrant entries studied by DHS, is one out of 80 overstaying. The least troublesome of the subpopulations examined were those (from prosperous countries) on the Visa Waiver Program — only one out of 166 of them overstayed.

One of the ironies of these numbers is that the groups of people with the least scrutiny behaved much better than those with the most screening. The study provides data on six nonimmigrant populations, with these overstay ratios:

  • Visa waiver program beneficiaries: 1 out of 166

  • Nonimmigrants, generally: 1 out of 80

  • Canadians by air or sea: 1 out of 75

  • Mexicans by air or sea: 1 out of 66

  • Visa holders from non-VWP nations: 1 out of 53

  • Foreign students: 1 out of 36


Those in the first category have no screening at all before they come to the United States; those in the third, fourth, and fifth categories go through consular interviews before they come here, and the last group is screened first (sometimes carefully, sometimes casually) by the colleges and universities before they go through a second (consular) screening. So with these populations, the less vetting, the better the record.

Nonimmigrants entering through the land ports of entry from Mexico and Canada are not covered by the study. The (relatively small) groups of Canadians and Mexicans mentioned above arrived following the receipt of a visa. Most people coming from those two countries do not have a visa.

I am using the tighter of the two definitions of overstays used by DHS. The looser definition "out-of-country overstays" is for those who did not leave the country on time, but had left the United States by the end of the fiscal year. The other definition, "suspected in-country overstays" is for those who were suspected of still being in the United States at the end of the fiscal year.

So how can we improve on the 1/36 ratio for foreign students? Well, different student populations have different characteristics, some of which are picked up in this study, and some are not. What this study shows is that some countries are much more likely to contribute overstays than others, with the world champion being Eritrea where the ratio is about one overstay for every 1.3 entrants. Put another way, 75 percent of those admitted as students from Eritrea are overstays.

Other nations with high ratios — all more than 10 times the global average — are Burkina Faso (1/2.2), Chad (1/2.7), the Democratic Republic of Congo (1/2.7), Djibouti (1/3.0), Libya (1/3.1), Benin (1/3.2), Gambia (1/3.4), and Cameroon (1/3.5). All, awkwardly for policy makers, are in Africa. Let's call this the F list.

Then there is a group of 23 nations, one from Europe, several from Asia, but most from Africa, that have overstay ratios from five to 10 times the global average. Among those in this category are Bhutan, Haiti, Iraq, and Moldova. The ratios, in this the D list, range from 1 out of 3.7 down to 1 out of 35.9.

Then, a little higher on the ladder, there is the C list of 46 nations where the overstay ratio is at least twice as bad as the global average, but less than five times it.

So one variable that could be used to lower the number of student overstays relates to how students from high-overstay nations are screened when they seek the F, J, or M visas, a subject to which we will return.

The other variable is the quality, or lack of it, in the receiving institutions. It is clear that some educational vultures have set up a small number of "colleges" that are really visa mills, designed to provide little if any education, but many opportunities to work legally in the United States before and after graduation. Sadly, neither the executive branch nor the Congress has taken the obvious step of deciding that if an educational institution cannot be accredited by a reviewing body currently recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, it should not be allowed to cause the admission of foreign students.

Given the lack of a direct requirement banning such entities from business, the government, through the ultra-sleepy Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) part of ICE, which is part of DHS, is charged with closing the very worst of the visa mills. Once in a while it does so, but only after many overstays have been created and large profits have been reaped by the operators.

CIS has reported the demise, for example of Tri-Valley and Herguan Universities in California and the University of Northern Virginia in the DC suburbs. (We are in the process of writing a CIS Backgrounder on such institutions, many of which are alive and well.)

Proposed Actions. Given this background, we suggest that the Department of State do what Australia has long done, which is to create different review standards for students from different groups of foreign students, by nation of origin, paying more attention to those from nations with high overstay rates, and less attention on those from nations with lower ones.

More specifically, for the worst of the overstay-producers, those that have 10 or more times the overstay rates of the average, we suggest that the State Department simply terminate the granting of all visas to students from those countries until further notice. This would be hard on a few genuine students from these nations, but it would be in the national interest. These are the previously identified members of Class F.

For Class D nations, those producing five to 10 times the overstay rates, we suggest suspending student visas until the overstay rates fall below a ratio of five times the global average. This would put pressure on the families of those staying too long in the States to get their relatives to come home. To improve the overstay ratios, the U.S. government might publish, in the home countries, the names of students whose behavior has caused visa issuances to be suspended.

For Class C nations, with overstay ratios at least twice the global average, more careful vetting should take place; in addition, perhaps a bond could be demanded (a cash bond, not some kind of financial document) of say $10,000 from the family. The bond would be forfeit to USAID — to be spent in the nation — should a student not return to the nation within six months after his or her visa expired. The family pressure on the overstayer, except in the most wealthy families, would be considerable.

Further, in all nations of origin, consular officials should be told to pay special attention to students who have been accepted by U.S. educational institutions that lack accreditation from an agency currently recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. There are scores if not hundreds of these institutions, and they must produce a disproportionate share of the overstays.

Meanwhile, Congress should mandate the accreditation policy suggested above, and while waiting for that to happen, the Department of Homeland Security should focus its SEVP resources — it has a staff of 700, most of whom never visit a college — on the most egregious of the higher education entities at the bottom of the scale.