Student and Exchange Visitor Program:

DHS Needs to Assess Risks and Strengthen Oversight of Foreign Students with Employment Authorization

GAO-14-356: Published: Feb 27, 2014. Publicly Released: Mar 7, 2014.

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gamblerr@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has not identified or assessed fraud or noncompliance risks posed by schools that recommend and foreign students approved for optional practical training (OPT), in accordance with DHS risk management guidance. ICE's Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) officials consider OPT to be a low-risk employment benefit for foreign students because, in part, they believe foreign students approved for OPT do not have an incentive to jeopardize their legal status in the United States. However, SEVP has not determined potential risks in OPT. Further, officials from the Counterterrorism and Criminal Exploitation Unit (CTCEU), ICE's investigative unit, and ICE field agents GAO interviewed have identified potential risks involving OPT based on prior and ongoing investigations. For example, ICE field agents identified cases where school officials recommended OPT for foreign students to work outside of their major areas of study, which is not allowed under ICE regulations. In response to a June 2012 GAO recommendation, ICE has taken initial actions to identify risks across SEVP-certified schools but has not identified and assessed OPT risks or determined the extent to which potential OPT risks will be part of its efforts to assess risks SEVP-wide. Further, SEVP has not coordinated with CTCEU, including obtaining and assessing information from CTCEU and ICE field offices regarding OPT risks, as part of its efforts. Identifying and assessing OPT risks, in coordination with CTCEU, could better position SEVP to manage risks in OPT.

ICE has not consistently collected the information and developed the monitoring mechanisms needed to help ensure foreign students comply with OPT requirements, thereby maintaining their legal status in the United States. Foreign students can participate in OPT while attending classes and after graduation for up to 12 months; students studying in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics fields may be eligible for an additional 17 months (29 months total). However, ICE does not have complete information on which foreign students approved for OPT are actively working and whether employment is related to their studies, per ICE regulations. For example, GAO's analysis of ICE data on students engaged in all types of OPT indicates that 38 percent (48,642 of 126,796) of student records do not contain an employer's name. Furthermore, the data do not include the date on which students granted authorization began working. ICE does not require that students and school officials report this information. Without these data, ICE cannot determine whether students with employment authorization are working in jobs related to their studies and not exceeding regulatory limits on unemployment. Collecting and monitoring complete information on foreign students approved for OPT would better position ICE to determine whether these students are maintaining legal status in the United States.

This is a public version of a For Official Use Only/Law Enforcement Sensitive report that GAO issued in January 2014. Information DHS deemed sensitive has been redacted.

Why GAO Did This Study

As of November 2013, about 100,000 of the approximately 1 million foreign students in the United States were approved to participate in OPT—an employment benefit that allows foreign students to obtain temporary work in their areas of study during and after completing an academic program. ICE is responsible for certifying schools; monitoring foreign students and schools, including their compliance with OPT requirements; and enforcing immigration laws for those that fail to comply.

GAO was asked to review the management of OPT. This report examines the extent to which DHS has (1) identified and assessed risks associated with OPT, and (2) collected information and developed monitoring mechanisms to help ensure students comply with OPT requirements and maintain their legal status. GAO analyzed ICE regulations and policies and data on schools that recommend and foreign students approved for OPT, as of August 2013. GAO interviewed ICE and USCIS officials, including those from 7 of 26 ICE field offices selected based on factors such as OPT-related fraud investigations. Interview results cannot be generalized, but they provided insights about OPT risks.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that ICE, among other things, identify and assess OPT-related risks and require additional employment information from students and schools. DHS concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or gamblerr@gao.gov.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To strengthen ICE's efforts to develop and implement a process to identify and assess risks in SEVP, the Director of ICE should direct SEVP, in coordination with CTCEU, to identify and assess potential risks in OPT, including obtaining and assessing relevant information from CTCEU and ICE field offices.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To better ensure designated school officials' (DSO) and students' compliance with OPT requirements, and strengthen efforts to identify and assess potential risks in OPT, the Director of ICE should direct SEVP to require that pre-completion and 12-month post-completion OPT students report to DSOs, and DSOs record in Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), students' employer information, including the employer's name and address.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To better ensure DSOs' and students' compliance with OPT requirements, and strengthen efforts to identify and assess potential risks in OPT, the Director of ICE should direct SEVP to develop and distribute guidance to DSOs on how to determine whether a job is related to a student's area of study and require DSOs to provide information in SEVIS to show that they took steps, based on this guidance, to help ensure that the student's work is related to the area of study.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To better ensure DSOs' and students' compliance with OPT requirements, and strengthen efforts to identify and assess potential risks in OPT, the Director of ICE should direct SEVP to require that students report to DSOs, and DSOs record in SEVIS, students' initial date of employment and any periods of unemployment.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To better ensure DSOs' and students' compliance with OPT requirements, and strengthen efforts to identify and assess potential risks in OPT, the Director of ICE should direct SEVP to develop and provide guidance to DSOs and USCIS on how much time constitutes 1 full academic year for the purposes of recommending and authorizing OPT.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To better ensure DSOs' and students' compliance with OPT requirements, and strengthen efforts to identify and assess potential risks in OPT, the Director of ICE should direct SEVP to develop and implement a mechanism to monitor available information in SEVIS to determine if foreign students are accruing more OPT than allowed by ICE regulations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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