U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Jon Tester (D-MT), and Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) today released a letter to Alejandro Mayorkas, the Director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and John Morton, the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), calling for an immediate crackdown on illegal use of student visas by foreign nationals to attend "sham universities" that exist solely to allow any foreign national with sufficient resources -- including potential criminals and terrorists - to unlawfully enter the United States.
The Senators asked ICE and USCIS to immediately take action to root out and close these fraudulent schools, which endanger the national security of the United States and take advantage of foreign students.
"These so-called schools not only defraud students and violate immigration laws, but they pose a real threat to our country," said Senator Dianne Feinstein. "Sham universities are a huge problem in California -- the latest example this year coming from Pleasanton, another from 2008 in Los Angeles, and two cases before that in San Diego."
In the letter, the Senators wrote "Sham universities are not real institutions of higher learning, but rather, operate solely for the purpose of manipulating immigration law to admit foreign nationals into the country." They continued, "When the student visa program can easily be manipulated by bad actors, it threatens the viability of the entire program for the large majority of bona fide participants. Fraud in the student visa program is especially troubling given that several of the 9/11 terrorists entered the country using the student visa program."
Rather than being real institutions of higher learning, "sham universities" operate solely for the purpose of manipulating immigration law to admit foreign nationals into the country. Recent examples of this fraudulence include Tri-Valley University in Pleasanton, California where over 1,500 students from foreign countries obtained student visas to enroll in an unaccredited school that did not meet standards required under student visa laws. In 2008, ICE officials in Los Angeles, California busted two English-language schools for being fronts that provided student visas to Russian prostitutes and other ineligible foreigners.
"In addition to this letter today, I intend to ask the Government Accountability Office to investigate how the government certifies and monitors these "schools" so that fraudulent operators face serious charges," Feinstein added.
Besides being a recurring problem in our immigration system, "sham universities" pose a clear and immediate threat to the security of our nation. Several of the 9/11 terrorists entered the country using the student visa program, as did Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, who just last week was arrested and charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. Among other sites, Aldawsari's targets included ex-President George W. Bush and various targets in New York City. Aldawsari came to the U.S. on a student visa in 2008 and was student at Texas Tech University.
The senators put forth a common-sense plan to crack down on "sham universities" and the recurring problem of illegal student visas. Elements of this plan include:
* Urging USCIS and ICE to formulate a list of high-risk factors for fraud within 90 days and then conduct site-visits to every Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified institution that exhibits those high risk factors within the next year;
* Urging greater information sharing between USCIS, ICE, and the U.S. Department of State regarding schools granting student visas;
* Heightening the penalties for principals who operated sham universities to engage in student visa fraud.
In addition, the senators made a commitment to introducing new legislation heightening the penalties for principals who operate "sham universities" and engage in student visa fraud.
A copy of the letter appears below:
March 6, 2011
Director Alejandro Mayorkas
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services
20 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
The Honorable John T. Morton
Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security
United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement
500 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20536
Dear Director Mayorkas and Assistant Secretary Morton,
We write today in regard to the oversight of the immigration functions of the Department of Homeland Security, including U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We would like to draw your attention to a recurring problem in our immigration system--that is, the illegal use of student visas by foreign nationals to attend "sham universities."
These sham universities are not real institutions of higher learning, but rather, operate solely for the purpose of manipulating immigration law to admit foreign nationals into the country. The latest example of this phenomenon was the Tri-Valley University in Pleasanton, California, where over 1,500 students from foreign countries obtained student visas to enroll in an unaccredited school that failed to provide the education that is required under America's student visa laws. Similarly, in Miami, Florida, ICE agents raided the Florida Language Institute for illegally procuring student visas for nearly 600 foreign nationals. And, last year, Los Angeles ICE officials exposed two English language schools as being fronts to get student visas for Russian prostitutes and other ineligible foreigners.
As you know, the student visa program is a critical part of America's legal immigration system. It provides our colleges and universities with much needed capital from international students paying full tuition and also provides America with the opportunity to educate the world's future leaders about American values such as freedom, democracy, and a free-enterprise economy. But, when the student visa program can easily be manipulated by bad actors, it threatens the viability of the entire program for the large majority of bona fide participants. Fraud in the student visa program is especially troubling given that several of the 9/11 terrorists entered the country using the student visa program.
Accordingly, we are asking for your agencies to formulate high-risk factors for fraud within 90 days and then conduct site-visits to every Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) certified institution exhibiting those high risk factors within the next year. In formulating those high-risk factors, we ask that you pay particular attention to any schools that are not accredited and host large numbers of students, and who demonstrate other indicia of unreliability (such as being predominately online schools such that the foreign national would not need to be in the United States).
In addition, we ask that you work with the State Department to make sure that you are sharing information about schools being granted student visas. For instance, we are told that the Tri-Valley University situation could have been avoided had the State Department known that it was approving visas for thousands of students when the school was only authorized to accept 30 foreign students per year. Entering into a memorandum of understanding with regard to information sharing will help everyone to avoid situations where schools are being given more visas by the State Department than they are authorized by the Department of Homeland Security to give
Finally, we would like you to know that we are committed to introducing new legislation heightening the penalties for principals who operated sham universities to engage in student visa fraud. The existing penalties for student visa fraud are simply too low to deter bad actors who can reap large rewards by operating for-profit sham universities and charging foreigners thousands of dollars to come to the United States. These new penalties will assist you in obtaining justice for the bad actors who compromise our system.
We thank you for your attention to this important matter, and look forward to working with you in any manner necessary to further our joint mission of securing the country while maintaining the world's best legal immigration system.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein
Sen. Claire McCaskill
Sen. Jon Tester
Sen. Charles Schumer
Cc: The Honorable Hillary Clinton, Secretary, Department of State, 2201 C Street, NW, Washington, DC 20520