The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released highly critical findings from its June 2012 report evaluating U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s (ICE) management of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). In overseeing the SEVP, ICE is tasked with ensuring that foreign nationals studying in the U.S. comply with the terms of their admission and that certain schools are authorized to admit foreign students into academic and vocational programs. Schools that wish to accept foreign students with F and M visas must request SEVP certification by submitting a Form I-17 to ICE. Once certification is granted, schools issue Forms I-20, which enable students to apply for non-immigrant visa status. According to the Border Security Act, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes ICE, must confirm schools’ continued eligibility to participate in SEVP and compliance with the program’s requirements every two years. During the initial petition and recertification stages, schools must provide ICE with evidence of their legitimacy and eligibility to take part in the program.

According to the report, ICE has failed to develop a process to identify and assess the risks posed by schools participating in SEVP because SEVP does not evaluate program data on previous and suspected cases of school fraud and non-compliance, and does not obtain or assess information derived from investigations and outreach events conducted by ICE and the Counterterrorism and Criminal Exploitation Unit (CTCEU). In addition, the report describes alarming flaws in ICE’s oversight of SEVP-certified schools and cites the agency’s failure to consistently follow standard operating procedures for communication and coordination among SEVP, CTCEU and ICE field offices.

The report was requested by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D – Calif.) following a 2011 scandal in which a California school granted hundreds of student visas without providing an actual education. It also follows an April 2011 study in which the GAO underscored the need for close oversight of foreign students amid findings that some schools were knowingly reporting that foreign students were fulfilling their visa requirements when they were not attending school or doing so only sporadically.

According to the GAO, more than 850,000 active foreign students were enrolled at more than 10,000 U.S. schools as of January 2012. However, in addition to the procedural shortcomings mentioned above, ICE has consistently failed to verify evidence submitted by schools in lieu of accreditation or to maintain records documenting ongoing compliance. In fact, a random review by the GAO found that numerous ICE files for SEVP-certified schools lacked at least some required evidence, including Federal Aviation Administration certifications for flight schools, and that several files were missing outright.

In response to these findings, the GAO recommends that ICE address SEVP-related challenges by identifying and assessing program risks, consistently implementing procedures for ensuring schools’ eligibility, and revising standard operating procedures to specify the type of information that should be shared among relevant parties during criminal investigations. For its part, ICE has concurred with the GAO’s recommendations and has made plans to address their implementation.