Universities that lie about their foreign students are putting America at risk

By Jon Feere

June 17, 2022

A lawsuit filed against Columbia University by an employee who says she was fired for refusing to lie to the US Department of Homeland Security has extremely significant implications for its foreign-student program’s future. If the allegations are true, Columbia will likely lose the ability to enroll new foreign students for at least a year.

How many other schools engage in this type of unlawful activity is unknown, but DHS should take a closer look at the more than 15,000 campuses it has certified to enroll foreign students to ensure this isn’t happening elsewhere.

As The Post first reported, a Columbia University Designated School Official (or DSO, a school’s DHS liaison) says she was directed to “process immigration documents on behalf of a group of potential students from South Africa without the necessary documentation, including evidence of funding and full-time engagement in a prescribed program, as required by federal regulations.”

DSO Yocasta Brens alleges that Stephanie J. Rowley, Columbia’s provost, dean and vice president for academic affairs, “accused Brens of being too ‘inflexible’ in the application of federal regulations.” Brens states she and her staff “were frequently asked to ‘bend’ the rules in order to keep the enrollment of international students at a high level” and directed to “certify that certain international students were enrolled full-time when they were, in fact, not full-time students” and “extend students’ immigration documents when they did not qualify based on federal requirements.”

As a top official with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Trump administration who worked to address fraud within our nation’s foreign-student program, I can assure you that the agency’s law-enforcement officials find these allegations very troubling. ICE’s Student and Exchange and Visitor Program (SEVP) certifies schools to enroll foreign students and ensures they’re entering accurate information into the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, a database created in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. SEVIS exists precisely because DHS needs to know if a foreign national fails to maintain full-time enrollment and take action before a threat develops. Schools that fail to adhere to these national-security-focused regulations create a significant threat to our nation and can have their certification to enroll foreign students withdrawn.

Yocasta Brens alleges that she was fired by Columbia University for refusing to lie to the Department of Homeland Security.

Under the regulation, “SEVP certification of a school or school system . . . will be withdrawn . . . if the school or school system is determined to no longer be entitled to certification for any valid and substantive reason” (emphasis added). The phrase “any valid and substantive reason” is broad enough to cover what is alleged to have taken place at Columbia, but the regulation includes a list of examples that constitute a reason for withdrawal, such as a failure to keep records where the “student is not pursuing a full course of study” and issuance of Form I-20 — the central document for all foreign students — “to aliens who will not be enrolled in or carry full courses of study.” There’s also a catch-all reason SEVP will withdraw certification: “Conduct on the part of a DSO that does not comply with the regulations.”

SEVP could soon hand Columbia a Notice of Intent to Withdraw. The regulation explains: “SEVP will initiate an out-of-cycle review and serve the school with an NOIW if SEVP has information that a school or school system may no longer be entitled to SEVP certification prior to the school being due for its two-year recertification” (emphasis added).

DHS relies heavily on DSOs to ensure data on foreign students are properly reported. This information includes, for example, academic records, contact information, whether the student is maintaining a full course of study and any employment related to the controversial Optional Practical Training prorgam. These are critical roles regulation created; SEVP cannot ignore what is alleged to have occurred without undermining national security and the legitimacy of the foreign-student program as a whole. If this is happening at an Ivy League campus, it’s hard not to imagine it happening at more obscure schools.

SEVP must immediately launch an investigation of Columbia’s entire foreign-student program. ICE’s special agents will need to audit all SEVIS information Columbia provided to determine the extent of the alleged fraud.

It’s troubling these allegations only came to light in a whistleblower’s lawsuit. ICE should consider a nationwide audit of other schools to determine the level of compliance with these important regulations. Congress would be wise to follow this closely given the significant national-security implications. More analysis on the case is available here.

Suspicious activity can be reported to ICE through the online tip form or by calling 1-866-DHS-2-ICE. The agency wants to hear from anyone who has information that may assist in uncovering unlawful activity, whether it’s fraud within a school’s foreign-student program, employment fraud involving foreign students or any other suspicious activity involving immigration or customs matters.

Jon Feere, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief of staff under the Trump administration, is the director of investigations at the Center for Immigration Studies.