The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cannot account for nearly 50,000 foreign students taking advantage of a student work visa program, according to a new report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Friday.
The program is a threat to national security and vulnerable to potential terrorists, said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), who asked the GAO to review the program.
The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), administered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), allows individuals on student visas to remain in the country to gain work experience in their chosen fields. However, due to inadequate oversight at DHS, the government has no idea whether 48,642 foreign students are working or not.
Thirty-eight percent of the 126,796 students currently approved for “optional practical training” (OPT)—which allows them to stay in the country up to two and a half years after completion of their studies—cannot be accounted for because their records contain no employer name.
Grassley sent a letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson on Wednesday asking for an immediate moratorium on the program until its problems are resolved.
“The federal government does not know where tens of thousands of foreign students in the OPT program are located, who they are working for, or what they are doing while staying in the United States,” he wrote.
“The problems with OPT are extensive and serious,” Grassley said. “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.”
Participation in the program has skyrocketed since 2008, from 28,497 students in 2008 to 123,328 in 2013.
Students are also rarely denied due to “ineligibility or fraud.” ICE denied only 12,643 foreigners between 2008 and 2013, 2.2 percent of the 581,869 applications the agency received.
Both Grassley and the GAO referenced terrorist attacks that have been linked to the government’s visa programs.
Senior officials from the Counterterrorism and Criminal Exploitation Unit warned the program is “at risk for fraud and noncompliance, in part, because it enables eligible foreign students to work in the United States for extended periods of time without obtaining a temporary work visa.”
“At least one terrorist, Faisal Shahzad, a foreign national from Pakistan, may have utilized OPT prior to planning out an attempted terrorist attack on U.S. citizens in Times Square, New York,” Grassley said.
“While it is difficult to know how many other potential terrorists may have exploited OPT to remain in the United States, it is clear that the program requires an immediate overhaul before another potential terrorist exploits it,” Grassley added.
The GAO cited the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks, and the Boston Marathon bombing last year, which “drew renewed attention to the need to further enhance the monitoring of foreign students.”
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