By Joe Guzzardi
May 4, 2016
Unless an FBI indictment intervenes, the stage is set for a November presidential showdown between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Trump’s convincing Indiana win knocked Ted Cruz out of the race.
The presumptive nominees’ starkly differing immigration philosophies – Trump restrictive and Clinton expansive – mean that for the next six months, the candidates will be clashing over the nation’s most contentious federal policy.
Most Americans break immigration down into two broad categories: legal and illegal. But, as a recent U.S. Customs and Enforcement report proves, legal immigration is much wider in scope than the average American realizes, and is facilitated in part by three technically nonimmigrant visas few have heard of: the M, issued to technical or vocational school students, the F for students at traditional universities, and the J, the so-called exchange visitor visa. Dozens more visas exist, but the Student Exchange and Visitor Program (SEVP), an ICE subset, loosely oversees the M, F and J, and certifies 8,687 schools to enroll international students.
According to a new ICE report, 1.18 million F and M students currently matriculate in the U.S., and 200,861 exchange visitors are here. The trend is toward more international student enrollment. Between March 2015 and March 2016, foreign nationals who study in the U.S. increased 6.2 percent.
But the glitch is that 75 percent of SEVP-approved schools have 50 or fewer enrolled students. That high percentage of low enrollment indicates that the schools are not what’s typically considered a higher learning institution where tens of thousands take classes. For example, the major fields for M visa holders are transportation, theology, performing arts and culinary services.
Among the many challenges the SEVP faces is that no matter how well funded it may be, no agency can monitor the comings and goings of more than 1.3 million students. The most glaring examples are the two 9/11 terrorist pilots who had student visas, as did the 2010 Times Square bomber and the 2012 would-be lower Manhattan Federal Reserve Bank bomber. Worse, however, is that while SEVP has the funds to prosecute school or student violators, it has no interest in doing so. Routinely, schools do not, as legally required, file certified financial statements, provide teachers’ qualifications or prove that at least three of their graduates are employed in the field for which they had been trained.
When it reviewed the SEVP’s practices, the Government Accountability Office concluded that it has not consistently implemented existing controls to verify schools' legitimacy and eligibility. The GAO found that 30 of a randomly selected sample of 48 SEVP-certified school case files lacked at least one piece of required evidence, such as proof of school officials' citizenship or their immigration status. To this day, and despite 9/11, SEVP still approves flight schools whose curriculum is similar to Florida’s Huffman Aviation where Mohamed Atta trained. Other countries which offer aliens educational visas are much more committed to enforcement. Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. have revoked more than 10,000 bogus visas.
Despite its importance in the immigration process, SEVP operates completely below the public’s radar. No one, least of all the SEVP, really knows what ultimately becomes of the overseas students. Some may return home to become productive; others may change their immigration status to permanent resident, and others still may overstay and disappear into the general population. During a Senate Department of Homeland Security hearing, ICE Director Sarah Saldana admitted that the agency has no idea the whereabouts of more than 500,000 annual visa overstays.
In this high-risk era where the U.S. is the No. 1 terrorist target, federal agencies have no excuse for lax programs that permit willy-nilly enrollment of marginally or completely unqualified students, or for not pursing those who have vanished.
Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. Contact him at [email protected]