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April 2003, Volume 10, Number 2
INS Moves to Plug Student Visa Leaks
By Cheryl W. Thompson, Marcia Slacum Greene and Sarah Cohen
LOS ANGELES -- Little inside the LASC English language school, nestled in a glass-and-metal high-rise in L.A.'s Koreatown, hints of a place of learning. It touts itself as "world famous," but there are no books or college brochures. On a recent weekday afternoon the school held just one student, though its owner says classes are taught three times a day, five days a week. There were no teachers in the school's five classrooms, only a woman who doubles as the receptionist and the school's assistant director.
Yet U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service records show that the federal government has approved nearly 300 student visas over the past five years for people who said they planned to attend the school. The approvals came with little or no INS follow-up to determine whether the students actually showed up for classes.
"They've never checked us out in 20 years," said Yong Kim, who owns LASC and another school, ESLA, in Rowland Heights, just east of Los Angeles.
The INS claims that that is about to end, with the introduction today of a $37 million computer-based tracking system -- the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) -- designed to keep up-to-date records on when foreign students arrive, what they study, where they live and when they leave.
For years, the INS has failed to track the nearly 1 million foreign students in the United States -- a Justice Department inspector general's report last year labeled the program "historically dysfunctional." But the shortcomings became more striking after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when Congress suddenly saw foreign students as a potential national security risk. Three of the Sept. 11 hijackers were in the INS foreign student database.
But even before the INS flips the switch on its new system, critics are saying that it will not solve the most glaring loophole in the visa program: Once in this country, it is easy for student visa holders to disappear into American society, melding into a population that hides 7 million to 8 million undocumented immigrants.
School officials raise a more immediate concern: that the system was rushed into operation with virtually no testing and that their limited trial runs have been plagued with glitches. Some members of Congress also are skeptical.
"I think we are going to have a situation where there will not be compliance by the schools and there will not be enforcement by the INS," said Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a frequent critic of the INS. "It will be business as usual."
By all accounts, lack of enforcement in the past has been a critical problem, leading to a situation such as that in California, where a small group of English-language schools brings a disproportionate number of students into the country but operates with virtually no oversight.
In the past five years in the Los Angeles area alone, more than 33,000 foreigners have been granted visas to attend LASC and 22 other language schools, according to an INS database obtained by The Washington Post through the Freedom of Information Act. That accounts for 2 percent of the student visas logged in that database -- a sizable fraction for a handful of schools that tend to operate out of small office building suites, with few of the trappings of traditional schools.
These schools can and do issue documents allowing students to stay in the United States for as long as four years, even though classes generally last six months or less, according to INS records and interviews.
The INS database also highlights the agency's longstanding problems with oversight: Schools authorized to bring in foreigners come and go without the INS's knowledge, and some agency records show students enrolled at defunct schools. Pacific Travel Trade School in Los Angeles, for example, closed in December 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Education. But INS records show 51 foreign students enrolled in 2001 and 22 enrolled last year.
The INS did not know the school was closed or where the students were, according to agency spokesman Bill Strassberger, who said that the matter needed "further research . . . to determine current status."
Schools often are listed at the wrong addresses and with incorrect names. Some records provided by the INS show approval for a foreign student signed by officials who have never worked for that school.
"We don't monitor anything well," said Phil Waters, a former INS district director in San Francisco who retired in 1996 after nearly four decades with the agency. "Nobody follows up."
A longstanding problem, immigration experts say, is that many students never report to school or drop out early. The INS and its critics say that while the new tracking system will help identify those students, it will not do much to help catch them.
"If a terrorist is scrupulous about attending class and maintaining his status, there is nothing in this system that will help us," Janis Sposato, assistant deputy INS commissioner, said at a congressional hearing last fall.
Terrorists on Student Visas
Twice in the last decade, foreign students have been involved in terrorist attacks.
Of the 19 terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks, one came in on a student visa and two others applied for student status. That led to an INS blunder: The Florida flight school where Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi applied received approval letters exactly six months after they piloted separate jetliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The permission to stay in the United States as students should never have been approved, Justice Department officials acknowledged later.
In the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that killed six people, the driver of the van carrying explosives had entered the country on a student visa and remained here illegally for years after dropping out of school.
After Sept. 11, Congress passed legislation renewing an order that the INS computerize its system of tracking foreign students. The new law set into motion a rush to abandon an ineffective, decades-old paper system and bring thousands of schools online. Now, they must electronically report the status of foreign students enrolled, including whether they attend classes, drop out or complete their studies.
In approving schools to participate in the revamped visa program, the INS vowed to inspect and certify thousands of universities, trade and other schools for the first time in 20 years. The process has been a last-minute scramble -- INS officials said the agency had approved 3,037 schools by mid-day yesterday, and planned to make decisions on 1,263 more by the end of today. As of yesterday, no school had been denied entry.
The effort to revamp comes after years of chaotic record-keeping.
In 1979, in the wake of the Iranian hostage crisis, President Jimmy Carter ordered the INS to interview all Iranian students in the country. Unable to find them using its files, the INS sent agents to campuses around across the country to ask for help. A year passed before the agency could announce that more than 59,000 Iranian students were in the country and about 7,700 had committed visa violations serious enough to warrant deportation.
Since then, it has become clear that neglect has touched every part of the program, beginning with the decision on whether to grant a school permission to issue documents known as I-20s, which students use to obtain visas.
Ben Ferro, an INS district director for 23 years who retired recently, said the agency rarely rejected a school's application and seldom visited facilities to determine whether they were legitimate.
"It was a rubber-stamp program of the first order," he said. "We have had institutions over the years that have by no standard met the standard level of learning as intended by Congress. . . . Some students admitted there was never any curriculum. Some admitted they never attended school."
Larry Weing, a New York immigration inspector in the 1970s, said the student visa program became a "kind of fraud of opportunity" because the agency's lax controls made it possible to buy and sell blank I-20s.
"There was always the perception among . . . officers that there were schools that were I-20 mills," said Weing, who retired in 2001. "Students were coming in on student visas to work rather than go to school."
James Dorcy, a former INS supervisor in the District, said his investigators found buildings along K Street where as many as five schools had used the same address, typically a rented office with no furniture and no telephone. Sometimes, the school would consist of nothing more than a post office box.
Allegations of trafficking in I-20s have not been limited to questionable schools.
Last fall, a marketing professor at Morris Brown College in Atlanta was indicted on charges of selling student visas to 17 illegal immigrants. The professor and an accomplice allegedly charged the foreigners as much as $5,000 for the false documents.
The INS has made occasional efforts to improve its records. Twice it asked schools to verify lists of foreign students believed to be enrolled.
In some cases, "75 percent of the data was wrong," said Ron Sanders, a former INS district director in Kansas. Agency investigators were told to track down missing students for deportation. "If we followed up on all of them, we would have been chasing thousands of students in my district alone."
The INS scrapped the process, and schools were no longer asked to notify the agency when foreign students failed to enroll or dropped out.
Cracking down on student visas has been not only logistically daunting, it has run up against the powerful lobbying of schools that rely heavily on foreign students for income. The number of foreign students has tripled in the past two decades, a student population that brings an estimated $11 billion a year into the U.S. economy. Despite their security concerns, members of Congress have been sympathetic to complaints from school officials in their districts who are worried that stricter regulation could cut into enrollment.
And at INS headquarters, according to numerous former employees, student visa problems always were given low priority.
"Whenever you would raise the issue, you were called an alarmist and an exaggerator," said Dorcy, the former INS supervisor who retired in 1989. "Top management was not willing to accept the fact that someone who would come to this country to do us harm would pose as a student."
A stretch of Wilshire Boulevard near Koreatown in Los Angeles is home to at least a dozen language schools, a tiny fraction of the schools the INS must oversee but a clear illustration of the challenge of keeping tight control on students entering the country, even under the new tracking system.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine has characterized language, flight and other vocational schools as a high risk for not complying with INS regulations.
For many reasons, language schools offer the perfect niche for foreigners seeking easy entry into the United States. More akin to vocational schools, they are able to enroll students with few prerequisites. But the INS has given language schools more latitude than trade schools, treating them as if they were major universities.
INS records show that these language schools and others in the Los Angeles area have brought in tens of thousands of students. The schools may be operating well within the law, enrolling students who said they would attend but, once they received their visas, never arrived for classes. A visit to a dozen campuses last week showed that all but one were virtually empty.
The schools are not required to account for missing students, and their owners say they have no way of knowing whether students return to their home countries.
"There are students who just disappear," said Jung Lee, owner of the Academy of English Language.
At her school, the classrooms and computer lab held just three students on a Tuesday evening last week. INS records indicate that at least 569 students have received visas to attend the school over the past five years.
"With INS getting tighter since 9/11, we had dropouts," Lee said. "Within three days [of the attacks], all the bookings were gone."
When Lee examined a printout from INS records shown to her by a Post reporter, she pointed to discrepancies: documents approving I-20s signed by people who never worked there, for students who never attended the school, she said.
The INS has acknowledged database errors. But it has not responded to repeated requests for paper documents that would provide more information.
Lee herself has seen the traffic in I-20s, saying one man offered to pay her $200 apiece for fraudulent documents, and another man who owns a language school in the area offered to sell her fake I-20s for $300 each. She turned down both offers, she said.
Now, Lee's school is being absorbed into the new SEVIS system: She was visited recently by an INS inspector, who had made an appointment, then spent three hours at her school. She said the inspector questioned her about one file, which was empty because the student obtained his visa overseas but never arrived for classes, she said.
New Bridge University sits on a quiet side street two blocks off Wilshire on the first floor of a labor union building. Six students were at the school on Wednesday morning last week, and four classrooms were empty. INS records show that nearly 2,300 student visas have been approved for the school since 1997. New Bridge President Yuki Rhee said 120 students attend at any given time, although some get their visas but do not show up for class.
"They come here [to the United States] and they disappear," he said. "INS doesn't know where they are."
The schools do not always match the portraits on their Web sites or brochures. New Bridge's color brochure hints at elaborate buildings with no resemblance to the actual school. One Los Angeles school's brochure shows the White House.
Peter Thomas, president of the American Association of Intensive English Programs, said that although the INS views language schools as high-risk, he believes the concern is exaggerated.
"I don't think it has been as serious an issue as it has been portrayed by the INS," he said.
Nevertheless, INS records on language school operations are full of discrepancies.
Since 1997, the INS database indicates that it has approved hundreds of I-20s bearing the name of Behzad Zaman, an owner of two schools along Wilshire Boulevard, including the Concord English Language Center.
But in 79 cases, the students are listed as attending Concord International High School, a private school in Santa Monica whose owner, Susan Packer Davis, said the students never were enrolled there. INS records show that all but a handful of the visas were issued to people who were not high-school age, including 27 for people born in the 1940s and 1950s, and another for a 10-year-old.
Zaman has never worked at the school and was not authorized to sign I-20s for the institution, according to Davis. "I don't understand how the immigration service let this happen," she said.
Zaman refused to respond to questions, and the INS has not responded to requests for the documents that could explain some of the discrepancies.
One I-20 signed by Zaman was for Sami Med Fathi Ben Hafaiedh, 28, who had arrived in the spring of 2000 on a six-month tourist visa, according to Mary Kelly, Hafaiedh's federal public defender. In September 2000, Hafaiedh was given a one-year student visa to attend Zaman's Concord English Language Center.
But he signed up for only one class, according to a source familiar with the case, violating an INS requirement that students be full time. In October 2001, about eight months after Hafaiedh dropped out and a month after his visa expired, the Tunisian national was arrested in an INS sweep connected to the Sept. 11 terrorist investigation. His lawyer said he served six months in prison for using a fake immigrant registration card to apply for a job.
Zaman also owns the International College for English Studies, housed in a ninth-floor office suite a block from his other school. One afternoon last week, five students were divided between two classrooms. A room with nine computers sat empty.
The courses last nine months. But most students leave in three to six months, said Byoung Park, the school's director.
"Sometimes they just come here to get to the U.S.," Park acknowledged. "I never argue with a Korean client."
Across the country, college admissions officers have immersed themselves in the INS's new system and, as they have gradually begun using it, discovered its vagaries.
"You can work all day to get one transaction to work," said Gail Child Szenes, director of New York University's office of international students. "The emotional highs and lows of this are incredible. One day, I am optimistic. But ask me again on Tuesday."
Under the new program, schools are required to continuously file updated student information into the database, which then becomes available to embassies, ports of entry and the INS.
But so far, those who have tried it say the computer system regularly becomes "unavailable," and sometimes simply freezes. When schools have called the INS help desk, they sometimes have received conflicting answers.
Terry Island, SEVIS coordinator for the more than 3,700 foreign students at the University of Maryland, said student advisers are spending 30 minutes to enter each student's data because they are so concerned that a minor error could jeopardize a visa.
"I am concerned about whether the system can handle the volume," Island said. Still, she said, she is cautiously optimistic.
In theory, SEVIS will help the INS close loopholes.
Such a large database will allow the agency to analyze patterns that point to fraud, for example. For the first time, I-20s will have identifying codes to prevent them from being duplicated and sold. And schools will be required to notify the INS when students leave or drop below a full course load, both of which can nullify their visas.
That will allow the INS to compile a list of people who are in the country illegally. But no one, including INS officials, is saying that the new information will trigger new enforcement.
"When I tell them that someone is not in school, I don't think they are going to send a squad car out there to find them," said Szenes, whose New York University office monitors more than 4,000 foreign students.
INS staff shortages have long posed a problem, and no new investigators have been hired to work on cases generated by SEVIS. INS officials said reports of students who have left school will be reviewed by headquarters. But even if they are sent on to INS field offices as a "priority," it may not translate into immediate action.
"In an ideal world, if we had unlimited resources, they would be investigated, and if they were found to be in violation, they would be arrested and removed," said an INS official, who spoke on condition that he not be identified. "However, we don't have that luxury of unlimited resources, so we have to weigh our resources against our greatest threat."
SEVIS project manager Stella Jarina stressed that over time, the technical problems will be eliminated and the system improved. And for the first time, she said, the agency will have current information on student visa violators.
"It might be much easier to find these individuals if they drop out," Jarina said, "because we have more information on them than on the person who came in illegally across the border."
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who last year pushed through a bill to replace the INS, warned that the new system will not be a cure-all.
"The system will only be as good as the information fed into it," he said. "It's wait and see."
Greene and Cohen reported from Washington. Special correspondent Kimberly Edds and news researchers Alice Crites and Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
(c) 2003 The Washington Post Company