On August 2, federal agents raided Sunnyvale, Calif. based Herguan University and arrested CEO Jerry Wang for allegedly misrepresenting the school on sponsorship applications for federal student visas. Wang, 32, is facing 15-counts of visa fraud and, if convicted, 23 years in prison and more than $1 million in fines.
The closure of unaccredited Herguan University, and Wang’s other venture the University of East-West Medicine, leaves nearly 450 Indian nationals with 15 days to find a new school to sponsor them or face deportation. Herguan University is the second California based school to be accused of immigration fraud in 18 months.
In 2010, nearby Tri-Valley University, which was also unaccredited, became the subject of a federal investigation for allegedly falsifying documents to secure F1 student visas for more than 1,500 Indian nationals. The allegations led to the closure of the school in January 2011 and the arrest of its president Susan Xiao-Ping Su, a former adjunct faculty member of Herguan, in May 2011 for 33 counts of alleged visa fraud.
The revocation of the Tri-Valley students’ visa status, and the decision by ICE to require at least 18 of them to wear ankle monitors, created an international incident that led to discussions between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao. The Tri-Valley scandal prompted Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) to introduce the Student Visa Reform Act, which will prevent student visas from being issued for enrollment in unaccredited colleges, in Oct. 2011.
Lofgren’s bill, which was passed by the House on August 1, requires all postsecondary institutions enrolling 25 students or more on non-immigrant visas to be nationally or regionally accredited by an organization approved by the Dept. of Education, unless the school is certified by the Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS). However, DHS certification has not been shown to be an effective bulwark against abuses.
In February 2009 Tri-Valley was certified by DHS to increase the amount of foreign students it was allowed to sponsor from 11 to 30. By May 2010—when ICE began investigating—the school had 939 students. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report determined that ICE has consistently failed to implement existing controls to verify the legitimacy and eligibility of schools seeking to sponsor foreign students.
The GAO determined that, as of January 2012, over 850,000 foreign students were enrolled at over 10,000 schools across the U.S., and over 50% of foreign students in the U.S. come from five countries—China, South Korea, India, Saudi Arabia and Canada. Of the schools hosting foreign students 1,250 are not accredited and 172 are potentially noncompliant with government regulations regarding student visas; of the 172 potentially noncompliant schools, 142 of them offer language, religious, or flight studies—with language schools representing the highest percentage.
The GAO found that officials at both accredited and unaccredited institutions in charge of managing student visas are not required to undergo a background check before receiving access to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), the federal database that tracks and monitors schools and students. School officials retain access to, and the ability to modify files in, the SEVIS database while under criminal investigation, reports the GAO.
Lofgren’s bill allows unaccredited institutions to sponsor student visas if they receive DHS certification, which would be determined by the department’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program. The GAO found that until June 2012 the SEVP had no clear policy regarding verification of the “in lieu of” letters submitted by the 1,250 unaccredited schools, instead SEVP personnel decided to verify a school’s letter if it seemed suspicious.
The lack of a mandatory verification policy allowed Tri-Valley University, and several other schools, to receive DHS certification despite submitting fraudulent evidence of accreditation or fraudulent “in lieu of” letters.
Lofgren told U.S. News & World Report that the accreditation requirements in the bill are designed to “prevent illegitimate institutions from cheating foreign students who legitimately seek a bona fide education in the United States.”
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