GAO: Tri-Valley University + Uncertified Flight Schools = Trouble for SEVP

Last year, hundreds of foreign students – most of them Indian – were sent packing when their school, Tri-Valley University, was found to have fraudulently obtained government permission to enroll them. The scandal left many students high and dry, through no fault of their own; although some were lucky enough to secure admission to other American universities, many were forced to go home.

The Tri-Valley University affair was a wake-up call to official Washington, spurring demands for an investigation. That inquiry is complete, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued a stinging rebuke to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for failing to adequately police fraud by schools it certified as eligible to enroll foreign students under the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). (See Student and Exchange Visitor Program: DHS Needs to Assess Risks and Strengthen Oversight Functions, Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requesters, June 2012.)

In the case of Tri-Valley University, the GAO determined that, although red flags were present that should have alerted SEVP officials to the school’s fraud, the agency failed to verify the evidence Tri-Valley initially provided to support its certification petition. According to the report, the Tri-Valley case was a watershed moment that exposed the SEVP’s vulnerabilities, prompting ICE officials to reexamine procedures for certifying schools as eligible to accept foreign students. “Following the case of Tri-Valley University, ICE created the SEVP compliance unit in August 2011 to target more of the program’s resources on school oversight and to strengthen compliance monitoring.”

The same report found that the SEVP was inconsistent in applying internal control mechanisms that are designed to monitor compliance and detect fraud among the flight training schools it certifies as eligible to enroll foreign students. This finding comes years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which three of the hijackers attended U.S. flight schools, two of them without proper visas. Despite these legitimate and longstanding national security concerns about the integrity of the student and exchange visitor program, it took the Tri-Valley University case to bring these concerns to a head.

The GAO says ICE is working to remedy many of the deficiencies that have undermined the integrity of the SEVP in the past. Among the additional steps ICE should consider, the GAO recommends the following.

  • Identifying and assessing program risks
  • Consistently implementing procedures to ensure schools’ eligibility
  • Addressing missing school case files
  • Establishing target timeframes for notifying flight schools that lack required FAA certification that they must re-obtain certification

Unfortunately, the GAO report comes too late for the many displaced Tri-Valley students; however, the reforms it recommends should help the SEVP to prevent unfortunate incidents like this in the future.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.