In 2011, an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigation of Tri-Valley University in California resulted in immigration issues for hundreds of Indian students. More recently, a Government Accounting Office (GAO) report issued in February 2014 finds that some schools are abusing the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. Student records at non-compliant schools lack information such as employer names and addresses or the dates on which students started and stopped working for each employer. These failures could result in new immigration problems for students.
The immigration status of F-1 students depends on their school remaining in compliance, and international students need to be certain that compliance continues.
Well-Established, Well-Known Colleges and Universities are most likely to Maintain Compliance
F-1 students who attend prestigious, reputable, fully accredited schools are least likely to face problems with their immigration status. Such schools have international reputations, and students attending these schools have had to meet the school’s high selection standards. Consequently, these colleges and universities are much less likely to become the subject of ICE investigations.
Schools Seeking to Administer an F-1 Program are Reviewed and Certified by the Government
Before the government certifies a school to administer an F-1 program, the school must pass a government review. Schools complete Form I-17, the official application to run F-1 programs. Representatives from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) then visit the school. The school must demonstrate both that it has a legitimate F-1 program and that it has the resources to administer the program and remain in compliance with program requirements. International students can visit the ICE Website to examine any school’s current certification status. Status reports are updated frequently allowing students to track the school’s ongoing record.
International Students Need to Act to Protect Their Own Immigration Status
The new GAO report, the current USCIS scrutiny of the OPT program, and the previous investigation of Tri-Valley University makes it clear that certification does not guarantee that schools continue to remain in compliance. Further, the government does not always monitor compliance after certification. Students should not rely on certification as a sign that their immigration status is protected; they need to take additional steps to protect themselves.
Review the Quality and Professionalism of the School’s Website and other Written Materials
Reputable educational institutions seek the highest quality of writing for their Websites and other written materials. Frequent misspellings, improper punctuation, and poor grammar do not directly signal lack of compliance, but should give rise to questions regarding the school’s legitimacy in general. International students who are not confident of their ability to judge the quality of the English in the school’s written materials should seek the opinion of someone who can make an informed judgment.
Certification to Administer an F-1 Program Does Not Mean the School Is Accredited
The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) sets the standards for and awards schools with accreditation, while the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) certifies schools to run F-1 programs. Some schools that do not meet DOE standards for accreditation may still be certified to administer an F-1 program. Accreditation ensures that the school’s academic programs meet the level of quality expected by the DOE. While lack of accreditation does not mean lack of certification or noncompliance with F-1 rules, it should be another sign that raises questions about the school and its legitimacy.
Be Certain the School’s Instructions and Practices Comply with F-1 Rules
International students should be familiar with the basic rules for maintaining F-1 or M-1 and OPT status. Knowing the rules before they request an I-20 will allow students to spot discrepancies between the rules and the instructions the school provides to international students.
For example, students at Tri-Valley University were not in compliance for two reasons. The first reason was that TVU readily allowed students to participate in Curricular Practical Training (CPT) during their first year when there are restrictions that govern when it is appropriate to allow such participation. The second reason is that the school permitted F-1 students to enroll primarily or exclusively in online classes when F-1 students have limitations for enrollment in such classes. Had the students been aware of these restrictions, they would have been better able to protect their own immigration status.
In view of the GAO report from February, OPT students can protect themselves by reviewing their student records to make sure the school properly records their employment information. Students can also document their own employment by keeping a file of paycheck stubs or electronic deposits from employers and so on.
F-1 Students Must Attend Classes at the Schools Physical Location
Before enrolling in a school, international students should tour the campus to assure themselves the school has physical classrooms and offices, a library, and other physical locations. If travel makes it impossible for the student to visit the school in person, then the student should try to find a relative, friend, or someone else in the U.S. who can visit the school.
A School Should Have Admission Periods and a Legitimate Application Process
While some schools are more open than others are and schools such as community colleges are designed to offer educational opportunities to a broad range of people living in the community, most schools have some screening process. Even the schools with very open enrollment policies have set application and admission periods. Questions should arise if a school appears to accept almost anyone almost immediately at any time of the year. In such cases, check the school’s accreditation.
International students should use the information above to protect themselves and their immigration status. In addition, some of the issues above should raise concerns about the school’s legitimacy and the possibility of fraud. While it may not guarantee that a school maintains its accreditation and F-1 certification, students should research schools as thoroughly as possible before enrolling and then monitor the school’s continued compliance. Students should also protect themselves by documenting their own personal compliance.
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