October 25, 2016
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Senator Leads Crackdown On 'Sham' Universities



WASHINGTON - Senator Jon Tester is leading an effort to crack down on “sham” universities that illegally offer student visas to foreign nationals looking to gain entry into the United States.

Tester is calling for an investigation into unaccredited colleges and universities that manipulate immigration law by offering student visas simply to allow foreign nationals into the U.S.

Tester noted that several of the terrorists who attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001, had entered the country using student visas.

“America is a nation of laws, and as we keep working to fully secure our nation’s borders, we’ve got to lock any other back door that people are using to illegally enter our country,” said Tester, a member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.  “By abusing the system and ignoring our laws, these sham schools are threatening our security and threatening what student visas are supposed to accomplish.  I’m fighting to make sure every one of these shams gets shut down.”

Tester, joined by Senators Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), and Charles Schumer (N.Y.), outlined a plan to combat such fake universities, which includes:

  • Developing a list of high-risk factors that point to fraud within 90 days
  • Conduct site-visits to every school that uses student visas and that exhibits such high risk factors within the next year
  • Implementing greater information sharing between federal agencies regarding schools granting student visas
  • Requiring stiffer penalties for individuals who operated sham universities that engage in student visa fraud

Tester’s effort comes after 
reports that 1,500 students from foreign countries obtained student visas to attend Tri-Valley University in Pleasanton, Calif., an unaccredited school that fails to meet minimum standards under student visa laws.  Earlier last year, Florida Language Institute in Miami was raided by federal agents for illegally securing student visas for nearly 600 foreign nationals

Tester, an outspoken advocate for strengthening border security and immigration laws, recently requested a report that 
pointed to critical gaps in security along the U.S.-Canadian border.

A copy of the Senators’ letter to the Homeland Security Department and to immigration officials appears below.

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 9111 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.

STORY TAGS: Senator John Tester , student visas , foreign nationals , sham universities

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