National Data | After Virginia Tech: Are 60,000 Missing Foreign Students A Security Risk?

As an English major, immigrant Virginia Tech killer Cho Seung-hui was a relative rarity. Nearly three-quarters of the foreign-born students whose majors are known are in science, engineering, or business programs.

But Cho was not the only foreign-born "English student" to gain notoriety outside of his field.

Another foreign student, Hani Hasan Hanjour, got a visa to study English at ELS Language Centers, a Berlitz-owned school in Oakland, CA. He never completed the course.

Instead, he was one of the terrorists on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Two other 9/11 terrorists were waiting for their tourist visas to be changed to student visas so they could attend flight school. The INS dutifully mailed them their student visa approvals six months after they had died.

But that was then. And things have changed. Right?

Wrong.

Student visa issuance fell sharply after 9/11. But it has rebounded more recently. In 2006 the State Department issued 281,097 student visas, about 37,000 more than in the prior year. [State Department, "Nonimmigrant Visas Issued by Classification, Fiscal Years 2002-2006," Table XVI(B). PDF] This was the largest student visa increase in over fifteen years. (Table 1).

Altogether, there are some 572,509 so-called "international" students in the U.S—3.4% of the total. That's up from 2.6% of the total in the early 1980s (Table 2).

Of course, "international" students (i.e. not the foreign-born children of immigrants, as Cho was) are indeed subject to greater scrutiny now than in the pre 9/11 world. A major factor: an internet-based tracking system, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), implemented in 2003.

Under SEVIS, U.S. colleges and universities transmit electronically the documents notifying foreign students they've been accepted (Form I-20) to the State Department. State then reviews the student's visa application and, if it checks out, issues a visa, and notifies DHS that the visa has been issued. Once the student is admitted to the U.S. by an immigration inspector, DHS notifies the school that the student is in the country. If the student fails to enroll, the school is required to notify DHS. [See Falling Behind on Security December 2003, By Rosemary Jenks and Steven A. Camarota]

In theory, SEVIS put the kibosh on two classic types of student visa fraud.:

  • Fake I-20s: If a student is accepted by several U.S. schools, as many are, the student will receive a number of I-20s. A robust black market for the unused I-20s was reported in many countries. SEVIS and biometrics make this more difficult, if not impossible.

 

  • Visa mills: Prior to SEVIS there were 73,000 schools certified to hand out I-20s. The list included beauty schools, golf academies, acupuncture colleges, English language schools, and, of course, flight training centers. By contrast, only 8,803 schools have been allowed to participate in SEVIS. They are the only institutions allowed to admit foreign students. Nearly 1,500 institutions were denied SEVIS membership in the fourth quarter of 2006.

But all the technology in the world can't prevent visa fraud if it's an inside job. There are widespread reports of college admissions officers accepting bribes to push forward applications of unqualified – or even bogus - foreign students.

This juicy tidbit is from the Chronicle of Higher Education: Clamping Down on Student-Visa Fraud [By Michael Arnone, May 19, 2003]

"The Federal Bureau of Investigation's affidavit sets the scene: In a Miami hotel room this past March, Rafael Diaz and James B. Holderman chatted with a Russian mobster. On the table between them lay a bag with more than $400,000, the first major payoff after nine months of secret negotiations.

"The Russian wanted student visas for himself and several acquaintances so they could enter the United States—not to study, but to conduct business. Mr. Holderman, who resigned in 1990 from the presidency of the University of South Carolina system after a financial scandal, had promised that he could make that happen. The alleged plan: Mr. Diaz would fool Brookhaven College, where he was a vice president, into accepting the Russians as students. The mobsters would apply to the Dallas-area college, provide some bogus records, and each pay $20,000 to the two men. Mr. Diaz would file the appropriate paperwork vouching for the Russians. Based on that misinformation, the U.S. Department of State would then grant the visas that would allow the Russians into the country.

"The Americans were reportedly counting the money when armed officers burst into the room. Mr. Diaz and Mr. Holderman then met their real customers: federal law-enforcement agents who had set them up in a sting operation."

Even when money does not change hands, the temptation to look the other way when vetting foreign students is enormous. Consider the incentives facing large research universities. They need workers to staff their science labs and TAs to assign to large undergraduate classes . Foreign students provide a nearly limitless supply of low wage workers. And if more qualified Americans are displaced….so what?

Worst of all: The latest SEVIS report [Student and Exchange Visitor Information System Quarterly Report, General Summary for the quarter ending December 30, 2006 (PDF)] shows 630,998 active students are in its tracking system.

Yet only some 572,000 foreign students are enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education, according to statistics published by the Department of Education.

Interestingly, South Korea is the country with the largest number of active students in SEVIS: 93,728. By contrast, DOE statistics show only 52,000 Koreans are enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities.

Why the gap? Are foreign students sticking around illegally after graduation? Are they working as low paid TAs, waiting for green cards? Do some never enroll? Or worse?

Is ICE pursuing those who violate the terms of the student visa?

There's no answer in the SEVIS reports.

Maybe Congress should ask.

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.