U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill today said a report by an independent watchdog, which she requested last year, reveals that a lack of federal oversight has permitted sham colleges and universities to award student visas to foreign nationals, opening the backdoor for people to illegally enter the country.
The report by the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO), warns that the fraud scheme could make the nation vulnerable to potential terrorists seeking to enter the United States. Requested by McCaskill and other Senators from both sides of the aisle, the report also found that a "significant number" of schools certified to give out visas to international students are not even certified by the state in which they operate. Of 434 flight schools that provide student visas, an astounding 167-or 38 percent-are not accredited by the Federal Aviation Administration. This finding is especially worrisome since two of the 9/11 hijackers successfully applied for student visas to attend flight schools.
"As we keep working to fully secure our nation's borders, we've got to lock any back door that people are using to illegally enter our country," McCaskill said. "Sham universities undermine the student visa program and pose a serious threat to national security. Federal officials need to take the recommendations of this report seriously, and put proper safeguards in place."
The senators called for the GAO report last year after a high-profile case of a sham school in California surfaced in February 2011. Tri-Valley University had enrolled over 1,500 foreign students until a federal investigation exposed the school as a scam. Tri-Valley officials were caught giving F-1 visas to undercover agents, posing as foreign nationals, who explicitly professed no intention of attending classes. Students paid $5,400 per semester in tuition to the school to obtain those student visas until the school was shut down.
The GAO report found that the Tri-Valley case is part of a larger trend of sham schools defrauding the student visa program. In the aftermath of 9/11, Congress demanded that the Department of Homeland Security complete an audit of the roughly 10,000 schools in the U.S. that provide student visas. But the report found that eight years after the deadline for the completion of the audit, federal authorities have only recertified 19 percent of visa-issuing schools.
The senators are also introducing legislation to implement many of the GAO report's recommendations. Among other provisions, the planned bill would: require schools and universities to be certified by the state in which they operate before they can issue student visas; require flight schools to be certified by the FAA before they can issue student visas; bar schools from issuing student visas while they are under federal investigation, and stiffen penalties for officials involved in the operation of sham schools.
Since arriving in the Senate, McCaskill has repeatedly challenged both the Bush and Obama Administrations to strengthen employer enforcement programs and has fought for tougher crackdowns on employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers and some progress has been made as penalties for such employers have risen dramatically since 2007.
McCaskill also passed a deficit-neutral law to provide $600 million in funding for additional border patrol agents and unmanned aerial surveillance to secure the southwest border.