The federal government has lost track of tens of thousands of foreign students who came to the U.S. to study and then took jobs, often in violation of the terms of their visas, according to a new internal audit.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn't even consistently collect information or have the tools to monitor all of the foreign students who take part in the optional practical training (OPT) program, the Government Accountability Office said in a new report released late Friday.
"The problems with OPT are extensive and serious. The report not only calls into question the department's oversight of the program, but also whether such lack of oversight is a serious national security risk," Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who released the report, said in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
Officials who run the Student and Exchange Visitor Program have deemed OPT to be a low-risk program, but the new findings suggest that may be wrong.
Immigration agents told investigators they view the program as a gateway to illegal immigration, since students who are approved are allowed to work not just during their time in school, but also for up to 29 months after they complete their studies.
The agents said that since those students no longer show up for class, both the government and schools have a tough time monitoring whether they are complying with the terms of their visas by working within their field and going home when their time is up.
Indeed, a high percentage of student records don't even list an employer's name.
Some concerns raised by investigators about the program were deemed too sensitive to release to the public, and they were redacted from the 46-page report.
Homeland Security officials agreed with the six recommendations investigators made, and said they've already taken some steps to find missing documents.
Officials also said they will finish a full risk analysis of schools that may pose a risk of problems by Sept. 30.
OPT was designed to allow foreign students to gain some work experience in their field of study while they are in the U.S. The program allows students to stay for a period of time even after they have completed their study — 14 months for most students, but up to 31 months for those in science, math and technology fields.
As of late last year, about 100,000 of the 1 million foreign students in the U.S. were approved to take part in OPT.
GAO investigators said they found thousands of students whose records show they stayed beyond the time limit.
Their report lists a number of pieces of information that federal authorities don't accurately track for all students in the program, including employers' names; whether the job is actually related to their field of study; and job start date and duration.
"By collecting the appropriate information in SEVIS and monitoring such information for compliance, ICE may better position itself to determine whether foreign students approved for OPT are maintaining their legal student visa status while supplementing their education with employment directly related to their areas of study in the United States," investigators said. "Moreover, having more complete data in SEVIS on foreign students working under OPT could help strengthen ICE's efforts to identify and assess potential risks to OPT."
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