- Officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Department of Homeland Security said the students had claimed to work for companies that don't exist.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has arrested 15 foreign students, including 11 from India, for allegedly using a visa program to stay in the U.S. fraudulently. ICE says the arrests were preliminary results from Operation OPTical Illusion, an ongoing law enforcement investigation that began in January.
OPT, or Optional Practical Training, program lets foreign students to remain the U.S., and gain work experience while studying in, and after graduating from, American colleges and universities. OPT is temporary employment, permitted to students with F-1 and M-1 student visas, and must be directly related to a student’s major area of study. Those within the department say students must maintain their non-immigration status and follow the rules of the OPT program.
The arrests were announced in a press conference in Pittsburgh on Oct. 21, held by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE. Officials from ICE and DHS said the students had claimed to work for companies that don’t exist.
“Today’s announcement is just another example of the Trump Administration not only putting America first but making sure the laws of our immigration system are enforced,” an ICE press release quoted Ken Cuccinelli, Acting Deputy Secretary “Every instance of fraud is a job an American worker could have had, and with so many Americans looking for work this crime is even more unacceptable.” He said these foreign students are “not fulfilling their obligation to the U.S. government and the American people, and that’s been made clear here.”
The agency will continue to vet students who gained new employment through OPT for compliance with their nonimmigrant status. Any identified leads will be reviewed for potential future enforcement. “ICE has a system of checks in place to mitigate fraud and is committed to protecting national security by ensuring that students, visitors, and schools comply with U.S. immigration laws,” said Tony Pham, an ICE senior official performing the duties of the director. “These latest arrests demonstrate that the agency is actively targeting individuals who try to exploit the student visa system.”
ICE did not provide any details on what schools those arrested were affiliated with nor any details on who they are. The only identifying information provided about the 15 students were their nationalities: 11 from India, two from Libya, one Senegal and one from Bangladesh.said the 15 arrests “took place in and around” Boston, Massachusetts ; the Washington, D.C. area; Houston, Texas; Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; Newark, New Jersey Nashville, Tennessee; as well as Pittsburgh and Harrisburg in Pennsylvania. “The arrests we highlight today are just the beginning and should serve as a warning,” said Tony Pham, the senior official now performing the duty of ICE director. “Any non-immigrant student who fails to maintain or violates the terms of their non-immigration status is subject to arrest and removal from the United States.”
Currently there are more than 260,000 Indian students enrolled in U.S. universities. According to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange (IEE), international students make up 5.5 percent of the total U.S. higher education population. IEE data reveals that in 2018-2019, over a million international students were in the U.S, with 202,014 or 20 percent estimated to be from India.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. about 1.2 million students who fall under the affected visas were enrolled and registered at more than 8,700 schools nationwide as of March 2018.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put a large number of foreign students in limbo, with many forced to go back to their native countries due to lack of campus accommodations and jobs. In addition, there is the looming threat of a new rule being proposed by the Trump administration to limit student visas to two years for citizens of 59 countries, potentially complicating the path to an American college degree for tens of thousands of foreign students.
Student visas are currently valid for as long as students are enrolled in their course of study. But the proposed rule published by the Department of Homeland Security, would limit the validity period to two years for certain immigrants under the theory that it will be easier to identify security threats and monitor compliance.
This July, International students heaved a sigh of relief as the Trump administration rescinded the controversial rule barring them from attending a fully-online semester this fall. According to the July 6 directive from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), students on F-1 visas could not attend schools which are operating entirely online for their fall semester. With this announcement, the ICE resumes the exception it made during spring and summer semesters when the universities and academic institutions were entirely operating in an online mode, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also gives students who have gone back home, the flexibility to stay in their home countries and continue with their fall semester online.
The rule reversal in rule comes after 59 diverse public and private colleges and universities from 24 states and the District of Columbia sued the Department of Homeland and Security (DHS) for the visa restrictions on international students. The lawsuit argued that the policy would put students’ safety at risk and hurt schools financially. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, international students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018.