For weeks, headlines have been repeatedly broadcasting that international students are in jeopardy of being sent home in the fall if they take online-only courses and the Administration is forcing them to take in-person classes. This isn’t because of the pandemic or the Trump Administration being unduly harsh, these rules have been in place for as long as the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has existed.
This little-known program is administered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and is tasked with managing almost 9,000 educational institutions that allocated over 1.5 million F-1 and M-1 visas (most international students hold these types of visas). It also oversees practical training programs that allow foreign students and graduates to work for American employers. The latest estimates show over half a million had jobs under these programs.
To live in the United States, an international student must be taking a “full course of study.” According to SEVP’s Governing Regulations for Students and Schools, that means an F-1 student can only count one online class per semester toward a full course of study. Since M-1 students are taking vocational classes, they aren’t allowed to take online classes. In response to the pandemic, ICE temporarily allowed international students to take a larger online course load in a March 13th guidance. ICE updated that ruling a few weeks ago, grabbing headlines by announcing an entirely online course load wouldn’t qualify toward a full course of study. However, the rule still allowed students under a hybrid model to take some online classes and those with working privileges to continue to stay employed. Colleges that planned to offer hybrid curricula had to inform DHS by July 15th.
In response, Harvard University and MIT filed a lawsuit days later against DHS and ICE. DHS temporarily settled in court, going back to the March 13th version that allowed a full online course load. The case still remains open on the docket and ICE decided to block new international students taking only online classes this fall. If about 25% of colleges stay primarily online, this ruling may impact about 250,000 students. Why is ICE still pursuing this?
Fourth View reached out to organizations focused on representing and engaging with international students or workers on F-1 and M-1 visas, but they declined to comment. If you’re an international student, researcher or worker holding one these visas, please get in touch with us so we can hear about your experience.
TRANSCRIPT: Jessica Vaughan
Well, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) is administered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is our basic immigration interior enforcement agency. And there are a number of problems with it. The idea is very sound, and it was set up after 9/11. But the idea existed much sooner than that, when there were terrorist attacks that occurred and the government realized that they had no way to track the [international students] who had been admitted from abroad on student visas. Everybody knew that there were lots of them. But there was no centralized way of keeping track of them, counting them, knowing if they were still pursuing their studies, or what. This is important because one of the 9/11 hijackers by the name of Hani Hanjour, had come to the United States on a student visa, allegedly, to take an English language program at a school in the southwest, and he never showed up for that program. And so if the government had been alerted to that, they would have at least had the opportunity to look into him and his background and what he was really doing in the United States and try to find him. They would have been on alert and they might have caught him before because he was here for a number of months before the 9/11 attack and had encounters with law enforcement and so on. And I say ICE has the opportunity to do something, because that’s one of the big problems. There are two main problems with this program. One is that ICE doesn’t actually do very much to track down the students that are reported to it as not being active or in showing up for their studies. They get the information from the schools but they don’t always follow up on it. They don’t have a lot of money. They have to prioritize the leads that they get. And they so they can only look into a small handful of the people that are reported to be out of status. The other big problem with this program is that ICE does not do a very good job in making sure that all of the schools that are allowed to sponsor foreign students are actually bonafide, meaningful academic programs. And it turns out that there are lots of what we call diploma mills on the list of schools that are allowed to sponsor foreign students. So if you review the list and they make everything public, one thing they do a good job of is providing information to the public. Anyone can go look up which schools are allowed to host foreign students. But if you go to that list and look, you’re going to see dog grooming academies, mystical training institutes, cosmetology schools, which are fine, but do people have to come to the United States to attend a cosmetology school or dog grooming school or language institutes and so on? So there’s everything from Harvard to “Acme General Studies Institute.” And what’s been discovered is that there are, we think, tens of thousands of students who have come to these diploma mills, been issued student visas to come study in an institution that is basically an office suite in a building not holding any real classes. And the reason students do this is because, it’s just a way to pay to get a student visa that allows you to come into the United States and potentially get a work permit, basically with the understanding that ICE probably is not going to come looking for you.
TRANSCRIPT: Ron Vitiello
Well, I think there’s a constant discussion, even prior to this administration, about the leaks or the flaws, if you will, in the Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). Lots of overstays, optional training people trying to be employed as an F-1, just never going to classes and becoming a fugitive or an overstay or worse. The 9/11 Commission and the results of the effectiveness of the terrorists on 9/11, if you want to call it that, depended on a flawed visa system. And a couple of them were actually student overstays or came as visitors and applied and stayed here because they got into the system as students. It’s always been a difficult enforcement regime for whatever Administration is in charge. I think this Administration, editorially, if you will, when they mention something, it becomes in the zeitgeist for everybody. And I’ll give you one example. We’re all talking about the tragedy of what happened to George Floyd. But when the President mentioned Juneteenth, there’s a whole generation of people who now know what that means because he got attacked for bringing up, something that a lot of people haven’t heard of before, certainly outside of Texas. And so this is the same kind of thing. This is another avenue of effort, if you will, by the enforcement regime, backed up by the Administration and the President to say, “Hey, this is a leaky system, we should do something about it. And here’s an opportunity, right?” We’ve got schools that have declared that they’re not going to open in the fall for the foreseeable future, and all of their coursework is going to be done online. And with today’s technology, that means you don’t have to be in the United States, which means the risks of allowing hundreds of thousands of foreign students in the country that are in the fall is minimized because they can stay home and still attend, still pay tuition, get the full benefit of education as it is in the future.
Yeah, I don’t have the numbers not being in the Agency, but I can tell you that when I was there, HSI (Homeland Security Investigations) was on multiple fronts attacking, if you will, this problem. These mills, these schools that are farces, in effect, get people into the country under false pretenses as F-1 students. They never attend classes, there’s no campus, there’s no university, there’s no degree at the end. It is a loophole in the immigration system. They get vetted by CBP at the border and we’re not aware at the time as a government that these are not legitimate schools. And then on the other side of that ledger, you have legitimate schools who people sign up and pay tuition for just to come to the country, otherwise they wouldn’t qualify as a non-immigrant or as an immigrant. And so this is an area of immigration enforcement that needs to be watched carefully. Each Administration, including this one, has brought cases against these visa mills. And last year, right before I left, HSI was working a case that, I think it broke in early June, where they essentially took over the mill to see how deep the network ran in the US and across the globe. And so, it was a good case in where, we could actively see this fake school was soliciting people to come into the country illegally. But then students were gaming it as well. They had no intention of going to coursework or getting a degree. They just wanted to get into the country.