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US authorities moving to improve student visa oversight in recent years

Three men were arrested in Los Angeles earlier this month in connection with an apparent “pay-to-stay” scam involving four private, postsecondary institutions in California. The scheme allegedly centres around Prodee University, an institution based in Los Angeles’s Koreatown and affiliated with three other schools: Walter Jay M.D. Institute and American College of Forensic Studies – both also located in Los Angeles – and Likie Fashion and Technology College, which is based nearby in Alhambra, California.

All four institutions are now the subject of an investigation by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). HSI has reported that the four schools primarily enrolled Korean and Chinese students – as many as 1,500 in total – and generated US$6 million per year in questionable tuition revenues.

The alleged scam, authorities say, exploited loopholes in the US immigration system. For example:

  • Unaccredited schools can still be certified to issue the I-20 forms on which applications for US student visas are based.
  • Students can secure admission to one US college, obtain a visa, and then transfer to another American school – without attending the institution to which they were originally accepted and with limited monitoring.

Such systemic gaps, combined with limited compliance oversight by US authorities, have given rise to a situation where school operators abuse the system by providing I-20s, fabricating transcripts, and otherwise falsifying documents. In exchange for regular “tuition” payments, students remain in the US to live and work while only rarely attending class (or not attending at all).

Sham colleges across the US are believed to attract thousands of foreigners who pay fees, some of them with the promise of an education they don’t receive and others with assurance that no classes need be taken,” says The Wall Street Journal.

Not an isolated case

The arrests connected to Prodee University have resulted in numerous charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and money laundering, among other immigration offences. However, this is only the latest example of high-profile frauds prosecuted by US authorities in recent years.

The largest-scale case to date is that of Tri-Valley University, a private, unaccredited institution based again in California and catering mainly to Indian students. Tri-Valley was raided, and shut down, by US immigration authorities in January 2011. In November 2014, the school’s owner was sentenced to 16 years in prison for visa fraud and related charges.

However, reporting by The Chronicle of Higher Education has found that the problem is more widespread than is often acknowledged in the US, and that it appears to be particularly concentrated in California and Virginia. “A Chronicle investigation suggests that Tri-Valley is only the beginning. Other colleges – most of them unaccredited – exploit byzantine federal regulations, enrolling almost exclusively foreign students and charging them upward of US$3,000 for a chance to work legally in the United States. They flourish in California and Virginia, where regulations are lax, and many of their practices – for instance, holding some classes on only three weekends per semester – are unconventional, to say the least. These colleges usher in thousands of foreign students and generate millions of dollars in profits because they have the power, bestowed by the US government, to help students get visas.”

The role of the students in any such fraud cases is often not clear cut – are they willing participants, for example, or are they too being victimised by unscrupulous school operators? The Wall Street Journal adds that, in the example of Prodee University and its affiliated schools, “The students’ fate is unclear. Foreign pupils enrolled at the schools should contact the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) office in Washington.”

Greater emphasis on oversight

Needless to say, any such sham colleges are a cause of considerable concern for US educators, immigration authorities, and policymakers – certainly at the level of the fraudulent schools themselves but also in terms of how such cases reflect on the integrity and purpose of the system as a whole.

As HSI special agent Tatum King said to the New York Daily News, “Student visas are intended to give people from around the world a chance to come to this country to enrich themselves with the vast learning opportunities available here, but in [the Tri-Valley] case the defendant was interested in a different kind of enrichment, her own.”

As a result of such examples of larger-scale fraud, along with related security concerns, US immigration authorities have been compelled to act to strengthen compliance oversight measures in recent years – including the formation of the HSI investigations unit in 2010. Nevertheless, ongoing criticism and review of the system suggests that more needs to be done. A 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), for example, found that immigration officials were failing in their responsibilities to uncover and address fraud at the school level.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have taken steps to respond in the years since – a series of policy and process improvements that The Wall Street Journal recently characterised as “a widening crackdown on immigration fraud.” The agency now employs field staff to work directly with US institutions to improve regulatory compliance. See our previous article and video interview on how Homeland Security’s school outreach programme works to eliminate fraud.

ICE also maintains a compliance unit that makes surprise visits to schools – a surprise inspection of Prodee in 2011 led the agency to eventually uncover the alleged fraud there – and is aided in turn by new risk management tools that help to identify suspicious conduct on the part of schools.

As of 2013, immigration authorities have also integrated the massive Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) into screening systems at US airports. SEVIS is populated by data supplied by US schools hosting international students (the student records it contains include considerable details on each foreign student in the US, including country of origin, age, programme of study, address, and more).

It seems clear that more needs to be done to strengthen oversight and compliance in the US system – certainly, critics observe that many current systems of enforcement and fraud detection require further improvement. It seems equally clear, however, that US authorities are likely to take further steps to counter such flagrant abuses going forward. In the meantime, cases such as Tri-Valley and Prodee place the importance of US systems of accreditation in sharp relief, and underscore the value of such quality controls for both international students and educators in America.

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