More Than 1 in 3 Flight Schools That Admit Foreign Students Are Not Even Accredited By FAA—Two 9/11 Hijackers Had Applied for Student Visas To Attend Flight Schools
A Decade After Congress Mandated Audit of All Schools That Issue Student Visas, Feds Have Only Recertified 19% of Schools
Senators Announce Hearing, Legislation to Stop Fraud In Student Visa Program
WASHINGTON, D.C.—On Tuesday, U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) released a disturbing report by an independent watchdog revealing that the federal government has unknowingly permitted sham colleges and universities to award student visas to foreign nationals. 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 Sattes.
The report 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.
The GAO report was requested by the four senators 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 report shows that more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, the student visa program remains dangerously vulnerable to terrorists,” said Senator Schumer. “These sham schools are providing a dangerous backdoor entrance to the United States. The bogus school in California exposed last year was really just the tip of the iceberg."
“More than a decade after 9/11 hijackers used student visas to fraudulently enter the United States, this GAO report makes it clear that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement still has no process in place to monitor whether foreign students are actually enrolled in school, or even whether the schools they claim to attend are legitimate,” said Senator Feinstein. “With more than 850,000 foreign students enrolled in 10,000 U.S. schools at the beginning of this year, it’s clear that monitoring activities of students in this country on visas and shutting down sham schools that serve as fronts for criminal activity are questions of national security.”
“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,” said Senator McCaskill. “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 Obama administration needs to promptly adopt the independent GAO recommendations and make enforcement of the guidelines for the foreign student visa program its top priority,” said Senator Grassley. “This is a national security matter. Foreign student visas were issued to terrorists who attacked the United States both in 1993 and on September 11. A lesson should have been learned, particularly with regards to flight schools, but Homeland Security officials seem slow to react and have a poor track record in identifying fraud. Today, participation in the program is growing, yet federal agency officials responsible for keeping track of the students continue to take a lax approach and knowingly, or not, continue to make it fairly easy for fraudulent activity. That’s completely unacceptable, and it’s time for Secretary Napolitano to manage the program so it can work as Congress intended and national security requires.”
In response to the report, Schumer announced Tuesday that the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security will be holding a hearing on July 24 to assess Congress’ options for reform of the Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). Witnesses at the hearing will include Rebecca Gambler, the author of the GAO’s report, and John Woods, Assistant Director for National Security Investigations at ICE.
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.