US visa fraud institutions highlight regulatory gaps, loopholes

Herguan University in Sunnyvale, California, is the third institution in less than two years to have been raided by US officials and accused of visa fraud by the federal authorities, leaving hundreds of foreign student stranded.

As in the case of Tri Valley University in Sunnyvale, shut down under similar circumstances last year, and the University of Northern Virginia’s Annandale campus, which was raided by immigration officials, the majority of international students are from India.

The succession of high-profile cases has highlighted the way in which dubious institutions are able to continue to attract Indian students, and the gaps in regulations that allow students to be duped.

On 4 August, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a notice of intent to withdraw accreditation to Herguan University, where Indians comprise 94% of the 450 students enrolled.

Herguan stands accused of acting almost as a ‘visa mill’ for foreign students wanting to go to the US, in some cases using forged documents to back up visa applications. Herguan’s chief executive Jerry Wang (32) was arrested and charged with 15 counts of visa fraud.

The Herguan students have two choices – to continue to attend classes or work at the job for which they were authorised and maintain their active status as required by regulations, or to transfer to another, certified institution.

According to the ICE website, if students fail to do either “they must depart the country without prejudice within seven calendar days”.

Loopholes and gaps

US officials privately blame agents who receive commissions from these universities for every student recruited. But experts say gaps in the US regulatory system have led a large number of Indian students to choose shady institutions in the US, whether via agents or not.

According to one former Tri Valley student, who did not want to be named: “Students chose these universities because of extensive online coursework and free use of curricular practical training,” which is a form of work authorisation available in select study programmes that enable students to work longer hours in off-campus, part-time jobs.

“Many students who transferred to Tri Valley or Northern Virginia did so knowingly. They chose these institutions for their lax operations,” said Ravi Lochan Singh, managing director of Global Reach, India, an education consultancy with headquarters in Kolkata.

“A majority of Indian students who attended the University of Northern Virginia in Washington and the California-based Tri-Valley University were not recruited by agents in India,” he added.

“They were inter-university transfers onshore in the US and this is a loophole in the US system. Other countries tie the student to the institution for which they take the visa for at least a year or so,” Singh said.

He said the regulation of agents hired by a foreign university should be the job of the university and its host country.

Patchwork US regulation

The prevalent view that students knew what they were doing and were simply looking for a ‘backdoor’ visa to migrate to the US, allows the unregulated environment to continue.

US officials say students should check the credentials of universities before applying, but different states have different rules and not all institutions need to be accredited in order to be approved to recruit foreign students.

Students, some of them transfers from Tri Valley to North Virginia and Herguan, were already worried that ‘a Tri Valley’ could reoccur and had sought assurances from the transferring universities.

In the case of Tri Valley, its stated accreditation turned out to be fake – not something that could be easily verified by prospective students in India unfamiliar with the US system or with accreditation mills. Herguan was also unaccredited.

Philip G Altbach, Monan professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said there was “a patchwork of regulatory frameworks concerning higher education among the 50 US states.

“A few, such as Massachusetts and Oregon, have quite strict controls that include foreign institutions and the roles of US universities abroad. Many others, notably Florida and Wyoming, have few if any requirements and anyone is essentially able to register a ‘university’ or ‘school’ without much control at all.

“Tighter regulation is very much needed. I do not think that this would negatively affect autonomy,” said Altbach.

He continued: “My view is that agents should not be used at all. There are no effective regulatory frameworks in place now. I believe that both countries need to regulate this ‘wild west’ segment of higher education.”

According to SK Vij, a former dean of student welfare at Delhi University, international universities look at India’s huge student population as an opportunity. But governments should ensure that students are not taken advantage of.

Student perspective

The growing number of Indian students attending US universities of questionable repute may be due to increasing cut-offs at Indian universities and competition for places.

“Earlier, only rich households sent their children abroad. Today, middle-class India also aspires to a foreign education, especially since it is becoming difficult to get a place in good Indian institutions. But overseas education can be very expensive,” said Vij.

With few scholarships and little funding available, students look for opportunities to work the maximum number of hours allowed.

Pragyandeep Sahoo, a masters student at Florida Institute of Technology, said: “Unfortunately, such work opportunities are few for international students."

Some students opt for higher paid, informal, off-campus jobs prohibited under F-1 visa regulations.

Student concerns include financial losses if a university is closed down after they have already paid thousands of dollars in tuition fees, and they are forced to pay for extra courses to gain credits to graduate.

In a bland statement that sidestepped the issues that really concern Indian students, the US embassy in New Delhi said: “We have a long and positive history of educational exchange between the United States and India, and fraud schemes are rare occurrences.”

The embassy statement added: “An institution does not have to be accredited to be allowed to issue [immigration] Form I-20. The Student and Exchange Visitor Programme, administered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement within the Department of Homeland Security is responsible for certifying institutions to issue Form I-20.”

New legislation

Nonetheless, the need for increased oversight has been recognised in the US, particularly since it has sparked criticism by Indian diplomats in the wake of the Tri Valley case and threatened to overshadow cooperation between India and the US in other areas of higher education.

Following swiftly on the Herguan University incident, the US House of Representatives has approved legislation that makes it mandatory for all post-secondary institutions that enrol 25 or more students on non-immigrant visas to be nationally or regionally accredited by an organisation approved by the Department of Education. The bill has to be passed by the Senate to become law.

For its part, India had announced in 2011 that it will come up with a regulation making it mandatory for all education agents to register with the Indian government or face fines or jail terms. But no progress has been made since.

* This article was changed to correct the institutional designation of Pragyadeep Sahoo, and more accurately reflect the context of his words, as spoken to University World News.