Threat from bogus students called into question by evidence on visa fraud

    The owner of the Florida Language Institute and one employee pleaded guilty last week to charges of making false visa applications on behalf of students applying to study English at their school.

    The school, in the suburbs of Miami, was raided in March following a 12-month surveillance operation by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As well as the arrest of the two defendants and seizures of $2.4m in assets, 81 students from 12 countries were also detained in the Miami area.

    According to the indictment, the owner of the school was using its status as an education institution approved by the department of homeland security to issue I-20 forms to foreign nationals. The I-20 is the key to gaining a student visa, and the 9,000 or so education establishments in the US that can issue them are legally bound to ensure their students attend a minimum of 18 hours of classes a week.

    The defendants are alleged to have failed to report that the majority of the school’s students did not attend classes regularly.

    A verdict in the case is not expected until later this month. But the March raids have been claimed by ICE to be the biggest anti-immigration fraud operation in the agency’s history.

    Underlining the significance of the operation for ICE, Florida district attorney Jeffrey Sloman said: “As we found out too late on September 11, many of those responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were foreign nationals who abused the student visa programme to stay in the US illegally. In the post September 11 world, programmes that enrol foreign national students must be legitimate and comply with federal law. Failure to do so puts our community and our nation at risk.”

    Cases involving suspected visa abuses linked to education and the threat posed by allegedly bogus students grab headlines in other countries. The US, Britain and Australia compete to attract students travelling abroad for study – numbers that, according to OECD estimates, exceeded 3 million in 2007. Institutions must be seen to be safeguarding both their national security and the reputation of their education sectors.

    The first line of defence against bogus applications is the application process itself. In the US last year, more than a third of the 490,000 student visa applications made were turned down. The UK rejected a similar proportion of the 350,000 requests it received. Yet only Australia has published a detailed analysis of why students are being refused visas, and by doing so, it has shone a light on the scale and impact of student visa fraud.

    The evidence from Australia is that fraud is limited and that the detection and prevention procedures currently used by the department of immigration and citizenship (Diac), which are similar to those used by the US and UK, are fit for purpose.

    In 2008, Australia granted 280,000 student visas, a figure pushed up by double-digit growth in the country’s international education sector. In that period less than 0.5% of student visa holders had their status withdrawn for failing to attend their courses or meet study obligations.

    Last year Diac commissioned auditors Ernst & Young to carry out a student visa fraud risk assessment. The report identified 15 categories of risk, ranging from abuses by students, such as providing false identification documents or financial records, to collusion by receiving institutions and agents organising study trips.

    Only one risk was assessed as “significant”, and this, relating to false military service records, was deemed to be so rare as to be of little consequence. The rest were classified as of moderate or low risk, with the report writers stating that the visa issuing programme “is currently operating in a risk environment with a moderate overall fraud risk profile”.

    The only recommendations made by Ernst & Young were non-urgent and related to improving case officers’ abilities to assess the veracity of English language qualifications and financial data. The report also highlighted the role of education agents, who are key in advising and placing students on courses. Australia has built up a list of trusted agents who are allowed fast internet-based visa access.

    Commenting on the report, a Diac spokesman said: “We are concerned about education agents engaging in fraudulent practices. In 2009 the minister announced enhanced integrity measures, including upgrading the interview programme in case loads that were identified as high risk to build up evidence of fraud and removing access to eVisa to some agents where there is evidence of fraud.”

    Countries targeted for scrutiny include India, Mauritius, Nepal, Brazil, Zimbabwe and Pakistan. China, where only government registered agents are allowed to dispatch students and which sent 18% of Australia’s 2008 total, was held up by Diac as a model for other countries.

    The UK is also keen to improve the quality of agents, who are responsible for placing one in five foreign students. A British Council-led initiative has brought together representatives from the main countries offering English language courses to work on co-ordinating policies.

    However, a categorical assessment of the risk posed by student visa fraud will require greater transparency from immigration authorities. Even Diac’s relative openness is qualified by Ernst & Young, which warned its mechanisms for gathering data about fraud could be improved.

    Perhaps the most useful lesson to be drawn from the Diac analysis is that potential fraudsters move quickly to exploit new points of weakness. In 2008, 53% of visa refusals were from applicants to university. The following year university-bound refusals fell to 39% and vocational colleges appeared to have become the focus for fraud with rejections rising to 50%.

    Published on 17/06/2010 09:43:52