WASHINGTON. Invoking the Tri-Valley University episode in California in which hundreds of Indians were caught up in a visa scam, four American Senators have called on U.S authorities to launch an "immediate crackdown" on illegal use of student visas by foreign nationals to attend sham universities.
While many in India believe the students were victims, the U.S lawmakers said in a letter to immigration authorities that universities which exist solely to allow any foreign national with sufficient resources -- including potential criminals and terrorists -- to unlawfully enter the United States could endanger American national security.
"These so-called schools not only defraud students and violate immigration laws, but they pose a real threat to our country," said Dianne Feinstein, Senator from California. "Sham universities are a huge problem in California – the latest example this year coming from Pleasanton, another from 2008 in Los Angeles, and two cases before that in San Diego." Other signatories to the letter are Senators Charles Schumer, Claire McCaskill, and Jon Tester.
"Sham universities are not real institutions of higher learning, but rather, operate solely for the purpose of manipulating immigration law to admit foreign nationals into the country," the Senators wrote, adding, "When the student visa program can easily be manipulated by bad actors, it threatens the viability of the entire program for the large majority of bona fide participants." They pointed out that "fraud in the student visa program is especially troubling given that several of the 9/11 terrorists entered the country using the student visa program."
The Senators said recent examples of such fraudulence include Tri-Valley University in Pleasanton, California where over 1,500 students from foreign countries (mainly India) obtained student visas to enroll in an unaccredited school that did not meet standards required under student visa laws. In 2008, ICE officials in Los Angeles, California busted two English-language schools for being fronts that provided student visas to Russian prostitutes and other ineligible foreigners, they added.
The senators put forth what they called a "common-sense plan" to crack down on sham universities and the recurring problem of illegal student visas. Elements of this plan include:
• Urging USCIS and ICE to formulate a list of high-risk factors for fraud within 90 days and then conduct site-visits to every Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified institution that exhibits those high risk factors within the next year;
• Urging greater information sharing between USCIS, ICE, and the U.S. Department of State regarding schools granting student visas;
• Heightening the penalties for principals who operated sham universities to engage in student visa fraud.
The proposals come even as the Indian government and the U.S administration are struggling to resolve the Tri-Valley issue which resulted in some 1500 Indian nationals caught up in a visa limbo with some of them radio-tagged for violating terms of the visa. Strong intervention by the Indian foreign office resulted in a U.S assurance of a "fair and appropriate" treatment of those caught in the muddle. As of last week, the Indian Embassy in Washington said it had been informed by US authorities that more than 50% of the students were at various stages of processing for reinstatement.