March 26, 2018
Grassley Examines Lax Oversight of ‘Visa Mills’ Offering Visas to Foreign Students
WASHINGTON – Senate
Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley is seeking information on a federal
program that allows private institutions to manage visas for foreign students
seeking enrollment in a U.S.-based school with limited oversight. The program
is susceptible to abuse by entities that pose as education institutions in
order to secure visas for tuition-paying foreign students. Those students
are then able to obtain work permits, and are exempted from payroll tax
Student and Exchange Visitor Program allows “designated school officials” to
help foreign students obtain certain three-year “practical training” work
visas. However, some institutions offer little, if any, educational
opportunities to tuition-paying foreign students seeking work opportunities.
These “visa mills” profit from the foreign student tuition and face little
governmental oversight when issuing work visas under the program, which is not
available to American students. Employers also benefit from hiring foreign student
over American workers, as neither the employer nor the foreign students is
required to pay payroll taxes for the work.
all of these financial incentives – for students, schools and employers – it’s
unsurprising that foreign student enrollment has exploded, while recent
American grads are un- or under-employed. Unfortunately, our government has
delegated much of the authority surrounding foreign student employment to the
very individuals and entities that benefit the most, schools and school
said in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
program creates a perverse incentive for the foreign students, the schools that
recruit them and the employers that hire them, all of whom benefit from the
program at the expense of American workers and taxpayers. There is no cap for
the number of foreign students who can enroll in the program.
students contribute to a growing population of non-immigrants who overstay
their visas. In 2016, more than 79,000 foreign students overstayed their visas
– an overstay rate nearly three times greater than that of the general
non-immigrant visa population.
March 22, 2018
Honorable Kirstjen Nielsen
Department of Homeland Security
am writing to request information regarding the Department’s Student and
Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), and enforcement of regulations that prevent
spurious businesses from posing as institutions of higher learning. Some
of these businesses appear to be taking advantage of the fact that the U.S.
government permits privately employed “Designated School Officials,” over whom
we have limited oversight, to authorize the issuance of student visas and
approve foreign students to work in the U.S.
many reputable colleges and universities enroll foreign students, dozens of
questionable schools appear to be operating “visa mills” that provide little or
no educational benefit to those who pay tuition, instead acting as
surreptitious employment agencies for aliens seeking to work in the United
States. These institutions, many of which operate as section 501(c)(3)
(tax exempt) educational institutions, are costing American workers millions of
dollars in lost taxes and employment opportunities, and contribute
disproportionately to the large and growing population of foreign students and
exchange visitors—nearly 80,000 in 2016—who overstay visas to remain in the
United States without legal authorization. They also raise serious
national security concerns.
Students Present a Growing Overstay Concern
size of the overstay population is growing,
and students overstay
at a much higher rate than other non-immigrant visitors. In 2017 DHS
reported that “[o]f the 1,457,556 student and exchange visitors scheduled
to complete their program in the United States in FY16,
79,818 stayed beyond their authorized window for departure, resulting in a 5.48
percent overstay rate” (compared to less than 2 percent for the general
Of the 79,818 student
overstays at the time of the report, 40,949 were suspected “in-country”
overstays, that is, 2.81 percent of the 2016 departing student population was
presumed to have remained, unlawfully, in the United States.
System Perversely Rewards Those Who Recruit and Hire Foreign Students
the growing overstay problem, we should be imposing tighter restrictions on
foreign students who apply to U.S. schools. Instead, successive
administrations have expanded paid “practical training” programs—effectively
entry level career placement, but not available to U.S. students—which give an
unlimited number of foreign students access to the U.S. job market.
Ostensibly, these training programs are tied to the course of study, but with
careful planning, students can leverage “Curricular Practical Training” (CPT)
and “Optional Practical Training” (OPT) to work in the United States for more
than a decade.
As a result, the population has exploded
with more than a quarter million foreign students working in one of these
government-approved, alien-only, paid “training” programs, as of August 2017.
employment opportunities generate a huge draw for foreign students.
For many aliens, U.S. wages outstrip home country earning potential by an order
of magnitude, and paying relatively modest tuition and fees in exchange for the
opportunity to net tens or hundreds of thousands in salary is an easy
trade-off. Some applicants will do whatever it takes to get a student
visa, and, as one put it: “I saw almost all (99.99%) students from India came
here for one primary goal: Get a job and earn money in a short span.”
Once here, many visa mill students will take their chances and overstay,
remaining for as long as possible to maximize profit.
are exploiting the lure of employment opportunities as well, to maximize
revenues, because foreign students pay full tuition—up to “two or three times
as much as local students.”
To capitalize on this
windfall, many schools actively recruit foreign students with promises of U.S.
employment, and some have gone so far as to reclassify programs so that foreign
students qualify for extended work authorization.
For example, Pomona College, Williams College, Yale, and MIT all recently
reclassified their Economics programs so that they qualify for the Department
of Education’s “STEM” designation,
students in STEM fields can work in the U.S. for three years or more after
greater concern is the obvious manipulation of the system by suspect
educational institutions. For example, Stratford University—a nearly
unknown visa mill in Northern Virginia that is reported to have 3,300 students
on 4 campuses—has approved more foreign students for OPT STEM extensions than
all Ivy League schools combined.
It appears that Stratford
and many similar schools operate in large part as a way for foreign students to
sign up for OPT and CPT.
employers who hire foreign students also reap a windfall, because they are
exempted from payroll taxes
—a cost savings of around 8
percent per student-employee. Some schools actually promote
foreign students to the business community, for this reason.
Employers who hire new U.S. grads, however, receive no such tax break—creating
a perverse incentive to hire foreigners rather than newly graduated Americans.
all of these financial incentives—for students, schools, and employers—it’s
unsurprising that foreign student enrollment has exploded, while recent
American grads are un- or under-employed.
Unfortunately, our government has delegated much of the authority surrounding
foreign student employment to the very individuals and entities that benefit
the most—schools and school officials.
Standing to Profit Are the Ones Who Approve Student Employment
school must be certified by SEVP,
before “Designated School
(DSOs) are free to issue the form I-20, which
permits an alien to apply for a student visa,
or to approve
students for OPT and CPT employment programs.
also responsible for entering information about the student into the SEVP
tracking system, for example, reporting whether the student actually arrived at
school and enrolled for classes.
students take their DSO-issued I-20 form to a U.S. embassy or consulate and
apply for a visa. Consular officers and Customs and Border Protection
(CBP) officials at the port of entry ordinarily rely on SEVP’s determination
that the “school is a bona fide, established institution of learning which
possesses the necessary facilities, personnel, and finances to conduct
instruction in recognized courses of study.”
once a school is SEVP-certified, the rest of the U.S. government recognizes its
legitimacy for the purposes of accepting foreign students.
recommend students for “practical training” employment by entering a request in
the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), after which a
student must file a request for employment authorization from U.S. Citizenship
and Immigration services (USCIS).
CPT authorization is
employer specific—the student must have an offer in hand—but a DSO can
recommend a student for OPT before the student has located a position, and
thus, without knowing the details of the job.
programs, the work must be “directly related” to the student’s major area of
Under Investigation Continue Enrolling Foreign Students
schools that exhibit the suspect characteristics of likely visa mills
nonetheless retain SEVP certification, 
and continue to
issue I-20s and approve student employment.
available information regarding enforcement actions suggests that school
decertification, when it does happen, is a slow process. For example, in
the case of Herguan University, the school’s Principal DSO, Jerry Wang, was
indicted on July 24, 2012, for conspiring to commit visa fraud and creating
false documentation in support of the school’s SEVP certification application
(among other offenses).
These activities surely
called Herguan’s authority to issue I-20s into question, but it was not until
almost three years later, on March 31, 2015, that SEVP finally withdrew
Herguan’s certification—just shortly before Jerry Wang pled guilty on April 9,
Herguan’s appeal of the SEVP action was effectively denied in December, 2016.
school, Tri-Valley University (TVU), was certified to admit 30 foreign students
in 2009 but by May 2010—when ICE began an investigation—had enrolled 939.
The next fall, Tri-Valley had 1,555 foreign students, before the school was
shuttered due to an astonishing list of criminal activity by the school’s
founder, Susan Su.
TVU “students” reportedly
took no classes, but exchanged tuition and fees for I-20s and work approval.
After closure, hundreds of TVU students were, mystifyingly,
permitted to transfer to other schools.
Highly Suspect Schools Continue to Bring Foreign Students to the United States
of suspect schools continue to operate, bringing thousands of foreign students
to the United States every year. A small but representative handful are
Despite documented harms to the U.S., and
real reason for concern regarding the institutions’ actual purpose, these
schools continue to churn out I-20s and work approvals:
Silicon Valley University (SVU)
: in 2015
hundreds of Indian students, many admitted to SVU, were denied entry to the
United States by CBP.
News reports suggested that
the school might be operating as a visa mill, and in candid interviews students
admitted to working “at gas stations, retail outlets, and even restaurants as
part of ‘CPT’ to earn a quick buck[.]”
time, CBP has made no public statements regarding SVU’s status, and the school
has retained its SEVP certification, sponsoring thousands of aliens for student
visas and approving unknown numbers for alien-only “training” programs.
Northwestern Polytechnic University (NPU):
NPU has a long
history of suspect behavior, and many of NPU’s students were turned around by
CBP at ports of entry in 2015. In 2014, a whistleblower reported
egregious abuses at the school, including the falsification of grades to permit
foreign students to maintain their visas and keep working in the United States.
NPU “has become one of the country’s largest importers of international
students,” and in 2015 that population had increased by more than 350 percent
in two years—to 9,026.
Despite multiple credible
reports suggesting that NPU operates a visa mill, and despite CBP’s 2015
action, as of the writing of this letter, NPU retains its SEVP
On its web
site, Stratford University touts its accreditation by the Accrediting Council
for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), with no mention of ACICS’s recent
derecognition by USDE, writing that it “has the authority to issue I-20s by
(sic) the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (sic) for F-1 visas.”
Among other errors, Stratford officials appear to be unaware that the
Immigration and Naturalization Service was renamed in 2004, when it was folded
into the Department of Homeland Security. This calls into question the
required DSO attestations—a part of SEVP certification—that school officials
are familiar with regulations governing foreign students.
University of North America (UNA):
ambitiously named school indicates that it is “accredited by ACICS” and “listed
by the US Department of Education.”
referenced USDE web site, however, indicates that ACICS is “no longer
recognized” and the school’s “next review date” is 12/31/ 2017.
No more recent information on accreditation is posted. On December 27,
2016, UNA issued a press release in which it announced that ACICS derecognition
would not affect “student visas, OPT, or CPT.”
this backdrop, I am trying to understand what DHS, ICE, and SEVP are doing to
eliminate visa mills, protect U.S. graduates, and combat student visa
overstays. To assist with this oversight, please respond to the following
questions by April 13, 2018:
am concerned that DSOs are permitted to recommend student employment without
obvious oversight mechanisms. What steps, if any, does SEVP take to
evaluate a DSO’s recommendation that a student be authorized to work?
determines that CPT or OPT is “directly related” to a student’s major area of
study, and how is that requirement evaluated? Please provide any relevant
policy memoranda, internal guidance, or procedures.
SEVP investigate actual employment conditions to ensure that student employment
is indeed directly related? If the answer is yes, how many times have
students been terminated from OPT or CPT because the actual work was not
government entity, if any, reviews the student-prepared and DSO-approved I-983
the training plan is reviewed by any DHS entity, what standards are applied to
the review? Please provide any policy memoranda, internal guidance, or
procedures related to the evaluation of form I-983.
corrective measures are taken if a school or DSO does not comply with relevant
SEVP rules, procedures, or regulations?
DHS/SEVP ever denied or terminated a school official’s permission to act as
DSO? If the answer is yes, please provide the number of officials who
have been denied or terminated, and describe the facts and circumstances that
warranted the denial/termination, in a confidential submission if necessary.
DHS is made aware of alleged problematic activity that could reasonably lead to
a school’s decertification, at what point in the investigation or
decertification process does SEVP terminate a school’s authority to issue
I-20s? To approve CPT or OPT?
and how does SEVP (or any other DHS entity) notify other U.S. government
agencies that concerns exist regarding the activity or certification status of
a particular school?
does SEVP track problematic schools to maintain awareness and continuity for
enforcement purposes? Does SEVP maintain a list?
a list of problematic schools is maintained, what criteria are used to
determine whether a school should be added to the list?
provide any list(s) of problematic schools maintained in the SEVP certification
context, in a confidential submission if necessary.
on the limited publicly available information, SEVP appears to wait until the
very end of an investigation or criminal prosecution, before it takes action
against schools that engage in visa or document fraud, or other improper
activity. This exposes the U.S. to significant risk, given the high
student visa overstay rate, and the national security implications. Given
that this is an administrative program, and DHS has authority to take
appropriate action, why doesn’t SEVP suspend a school’s certification as soon
as it becomes aware of serious allegations that could impact a school’s
certification, instead of waiting, sometimes for years, to take action?
the following schools, please explain the impacts of, and reason for, the delay
between the time information suggesting that the school (or a school official)
was involved in improper activity became available, and the time when SEVP took
action to stop the school from issuing I-20s, or approving students for CPT and
University: why did SEVP wait three years before decertifying the school?
many I-20s did Herguan issue after Jerry Wang was indicted on July 24, 2012?
What was the date of the last I-20 issued by Herguan?
many Hergaun students were approved for CPT or OPT after Wang was indicted?
many students entered the United States to attend Herguan between Wang’s
indictment and SEVP’s actual decertification?
such information is available, please provide the number of Herguan students
who are suspected in-country overstays as of the time of your response.
University (TVU): ICE first received a tip about TVU in May 2010, and Susan Su
was indicted in November, 2011.
When was TVU decertified by SEVP?
many I-20s did TVU issue between May 2010 and the date of
decertification? How many did TVU issue after November, 2011?
many TVU students were approved for CPT or OPT after May 2010? After November,
many students entered the United States to attend TVU after May 2010?
After November, 2011?
such information is available, please provide the number of former TVU students
who are suspected in-country overstays as of the time of your response.
each of the four schools in the bulleted list above, please answer the
the school still SEVP certified (as of the date of your response)?
the school (or any school official) under investigation for any improper
activity that, if true, could result in decertification? If yes, please
provide details regarding the nature of the investigation, in a confidential
submission, if necessary.
the student population:
many foreign (or “international”) students are enrolled at the school?
many U.S. residents are enrolled?
is the total enrollment?
many students currently participate in CPT or OPT?
many students have a home address in a state different than the school or
campus? Of these, how many are participating in OPT?
Overstay detection and prevention
: Under the
SEVP framework, aDSO is responsible for reporting whether or not a student
shows up and begins classes by the Initial Session Start Date and whether or
not the student returns and enrolls at the start of each new session.
Your publicly available guidance indicates that a DSO must “terminate” a
student record in SEVIS if she or he knows that a student entered the country
but did not enroll for classes, or should “cancel” the student, if the student
did not enroll and the DSO is unsure if the student entered the country.
action, if any, does SEVP and/or ICE or DHS take if a student is
terminated? What efforts does ICE make to locate and remove the student?
explain the difference between terminating a record in SEVIS, and cancelling
one, in terms of immigration status. Specifically: If a student’s SEVIS
status is cancelled, will that result in the student being out of legal status
pursuant to U.S. immigration law?
a student’s SEVIS record is “cancelled,” and he or she later attempts to enter
the United States on his or her student visa, will entry be denied solely on
the basis of the SEVIS cancellation (assuming no error by immigration
such records are available, how many students were known or believed to be
present in the United States (based on port of entry records or other reliable
information) and subsequently were terminated in SEVIS because they did not
report for the initial session, or for a new session, in the last three years
(2015, 2016, 2017)?
those who were terminated, how many have been located by ICE?
provide any information readily available regarding how many of such students
are in removal proceedings or some other form of administrative proceedings
related to immigration status.
: your regulations require that
foreign students may be admitted if she or he presents “documentary evidence of
and the Department of State
relies in part upon the I-20 as evidence that the student “is financially able
to pursue the proposed course of study.”
DHS policies permit paid student employment, which seems to run contrary to the
concept that students be self-supporting. What is the earliest date after
a student’s arrival for the initial term that he or she can begin to work for
pay (in any program, including on-campus employment, CPT, or OPT)?
many students in 2015, 2016, and 2017, began working as soon as
you in advance for your cooperation with this request. If you have any
questions, please contact Brad Watts or Katherine Nikas of my Judiciary
Committee staff at (202) 224-5225.
on the Judiciary
The Honorable Elizabeth DeVos
U.S. Department of Education
The Honorable Rex Tillerson
U.S. Department of State
educational institution that encourages and facilitates fraudulent entry into
the United States is ripe for exploitation by those who seek to do harm.
Student visas have raised national security concerns since one of the 9/11
hijackers, and the Christmas Day bomber, traveled here on student visas.
Robert, and Kerwin, Donald, Center for Migration Studies, “Since 2007 Visa
Overstays have Outnumbered Undocumented Border Crossers by a Half Million,
Executive Summary,” available at
to the Center for Migration Studies, in 2014, of the 11 million unauthorized
immigrants in this country approximately 42 percent—or 4.5 million—have
overstayed the time granted them by DHS, to remain here. This same report found
that from 2007 to 2014, more of the unauthorized immigration population had
originally arrived legally, either on a visa or through other legal means of
entry, rather than through “entry without inspection.” This trend peaked
in 2014 and has held true ever since, with overstays accounting for 66 percent
of all new unauthorized immigrants in 2014 and beyond.
Year 2016 Entry/Exit Overstay Report, Executive Summary” available at
“Practical Training,” available at
“Foreign Students,” available at
8 CFR § 214.2(f)(10)(i).
students have long been permitted such employment but numbers historically have
been small, until post-graduate employment authorization was extended to three
years. See Washington Alliance of Technology Workers v. U.S. Dept. of
, 156 F. Supp. 3d 123, 141-145 (D. D.C. Aug. 12, 2015)
(describing foreign student employment programs, regulations, dating back to
Statistics provided to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary by ICE, Curricular
Practical Training(CPT)/Optional Practical Training (OPT)
(Aug. 18, 2017)
available upon request.
the first two entries under “Student Benefits” on the SEVP web site are
“Working in the United States” and “Training Opportunities in the United
States.” See “
Study in the States” available at
Sukumar, Raghuram, “99.99% of Indian Students Studying in USA Want Just These
Two Things,” (Feb. 8, 2015) available at
Meckler, Laura, and Korn, Melissa, “Visas Issued to Foreign Students Fall,
Partly Due to Trump Immigration Policy,” Wall St. Journal (Mar. 11, 2018) available
Elizabeth, “Is Econ STEM?” Inside Higher Ed. (Feb. 19, 2018) available at
STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. DHS
provides a list of “STEM Designated Degree Programs,” derived from the
Department of Education’s records, available at
David, “Obscure Universities (One Now Closed) Got Far More OPTs than the
Ivies,” Center for Imm. Studies (Jan. 17, 2017) available at
“Social Security/Medicare and Self-Employment Tax Liability of Foreign
Students, Scholars, Teachers, Researchers, and Trainees,” available at
, San Francisco State University, “What Employers Should Know About
Hiring International Students,” available at
(“In fact, a company may save money by hiring international students because
the majority of them are exempt from Social Security (FICA) and Medicare tax
Steve, “College Grads Stuck With Low Wages as U.S. Hiring Heats Up,” Bloomberg
(Apr. 6, 2017) available at
have two primary paths to SEVP certification. A school that is accredited
by a Department of Education (USDE)-approved accrediting agency may simply
apply for SEVP certification. Alternately, a school that is not
accredited by a federally approved accrediting agency may request certification
based on “evidence in lieu of accreditation.” See
Guidance S1.2: Evidentiary Requirements for Schools Not Meeting Eligibility
Criteria in 8 CFR 214.3(b) and (c)” (Oct. 28, 2016) available at
order to become a DSO, a school employee need only be nominated by the owner or
head of the school; be a regularly employed member of the school administration
who is located at the school, and whose compensation does not come from
commissions for recruitment of foreign students and; be either a citizen or
lawful permanent resident of the United States. I understand that SEVP
recently instituted criminal background checks for certain DSO populations, and
is developing additional security vetting procedures for those who hold these
positions, which I applaud.
Dept. of Homeland Security, “Study in the States – Getting Started with SEVP
Certification,” available at
Students who wish to work must also obtain an employment authorization document
(EAD) from USCIS.
DHS/ICE, “SEVIS Reporting Requirements for Designated School Officials,” available
Dept. of State, Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) § 9 FAM 402.5-5(H)(1)(c).
, DHS, “F/M Student Employment,” available at
include: small campuses, often privately owned, with high numbers of foreign
students, and a very high percentage of students participating in CPT or OPT.
provides a school search tool at:
https://studyinthestates.dhs.gov/school-search. A quick search for
problematic schools mentioned in this letter shows that Northwestern
Polytechnic University, Silicon Valley University, Virginia International
University, and the ambitiously named University of North America (located in
Vienna, Virginia), are all currently approved to issue I-20s and approve
, North, David, “The Dregs of Higher Education Damage Our Immigration
System,” (Sept. 11, 2017) available at
, INDICTMENT CR-12-581 (N.D. Cal July 24, 2012) available at
Herguan University v. ICE,
16-cv-06656, Dkt. No. 17 at 3 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 2
2016). ICE actually withdrew Herguan’s certification briefly in 2012,
after Herguan sent a response to the Notice of Intent to Withdraw to the wrong
email address, but ICE subsequently reinstated the certification and took no
further action for almost three more years.
Newsroom, “President of Bay Area University Convicted in Student Visa Fraud
Scheme” (Mar. 24, 2014) available at
Molinet, Jason, “Founder of phony university that bilked millions from students
and filed fraudulent visas gets 16 years,” NY DailyNews (Nov. 4, 2014) available
“SEVP Guidance On F-1 Transfers From TVU”
(Feb. 7, 2011) available at
slight twist, the University of Management and Technology (UMT), with locations
in Northern Virginia and Beijing, strongly recruits students from the U.S.
military services, as well as foreign students. The school’s activities
raised such concerns that a whistleblower reported that the school, which was
possibly collecting information about U.S. military technology and
Catherine Herridge, Pamela K. Browne & Cyd
Upson, “Fox News Investigation: DOD-Funded School at Center of Federal Probes
Over Suspected Chinese Military Ties,” Fox
(Feb. 24, 2017), available at
Like the others listed above, UMT remains on the list of schools certified to
issue F-1 visas.
Lakshman, Narayan, and Henry, Nikhila, “The American Dream and the Enigma of
Departure,” The Hindu (Jan. 23, 2016) available at
Hensley-Clancy,Molly, “Making The Grades,” Buzzfeed (May 26, 2016) available
[hereinafter “Making the Grades”].
Hensley-Clancy, Molly and Klinekenberg, Brendan, “These Obscure Colleges Sign
Up Thousands of Foreign Students With Little Oversight,” Buzzfeed, (Jan. 22,
2016) available at
addition to the grammatical/typographical error (one of many on the school’s
web site), Stratford University appears to be unaware that the Immigration and
Naturalization Service was renamed when it was folded into the Department of
and Certifications” available at
History, available at
Release, available at http://old.uona.edu/UoNA/pub/news.asp?catid=3&ctxid=27819
This statement is inaccurate, as schools that offer STEM-OPT extensions must be
accredited by a USDE-recognized accrediting agency, at the time the student
submits the extension application. See
DHS, “STEM OPT and Benefits
for International Students,” available at
Newsroom, “President of Bay Area University Convicted in Student Visa Fraud
Scheme” (Mar. 24, 2014) available at
Reporting Requirements for Designated School Officials,” available at
214.2(f)(i)(B) available at