Recent press reports on the California visa fraud case disclosed by authorities this week do a good deal to inform the public about the scope and nature of the case. The schools affected have been clear in saying that fraud is something they take seriously and guard against vigilantly, while acknowledging that there are limits to what they can know about every student who comes through their doors every day. The ICE special agent in charge of the case, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, notes that there has to this point been "no indication that any of the students had any terrorist ties."
Apparently the anti-immigration group FAIR knows more than ICE does. In the same article, a spokesperson for the group had this to say: "This is an indication that a lot of the abuses that led to 9/11 are still taking place. The consequences are not just people getting phony grades. There are potential national security consequences at stake." Given what is known about the case, it is unclear what exactly the connection to 9/11 or to "national security consequences" might be. The FAIR spokesperson himself acknowledges that one of the 9/11 hijackers was in United States on a student visa. That's one out of 19 – numerous government sources, including the 9/11 Commission and the State Department, have confirmed repeatedly over the years that all of the other hijackers entered the United States on tourist visas.
Let's put this in perspective. The vast majority of non-immigrants who come to the country every year do so on tourist visas—the visas used by almost all of the 9/11 terrorists. We know little about these people. For most of them, we do not track where they go, how long they stay here, what they do while they are here—or indeed, if they ever leave. By contrast, individuals who seek student visas – about 2% of the foreign visitors to our country each year - have to meet many requirements in order to apply for and receive them, and they are closely tracked while they are here. Foreign students and scholars are the only population of U.S. visa holders that is subject to monitoring while they are in our country, and that monitoring is extensive. We know much more about this small group of foreign visitors than about the other 98% of foreign visitors to our country.
Abuses of the U.S. system must be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. Perhaps the full scope of this case is not yet known. At the same time, there is good reason not to jump to the conclusion that violations of immigration status suggest intent to commit terrorist acts. If we took that approach to its logical conclusion, our country would move further to close its doors to those outside our borders, and we know that's not good for our security. What is more, it is unproductive to respond to cases like these by simply adding yet more monitoring of a group of people that is already heavily monitored, diverting scarce resources away from our ability to pursue real threats. There is no evidence that the student visa system represents any more of a "vulnerability" in the immigration system than the visa categories used by the other 98% of our foreign visitors. In fact, foreign students have historically been among our most important foreign policy assets, connecting us with the leadership of other countries, creating avenues of cooperation among nations, and expanding the horizons of our own students toward a globally connected world.
Contrary to what a former DHS official told the Associated Press this week, U.S. colleges and universities have invested enormous effort, time, and expense in making the foreign student tracking system work. The reason it works as well as it does is because of a sustained collaborative effort between schools and the U.S. government. Improvement is always possible, and we continue to work with the Department of Homeland Security each day on these matters. But a serious approach to our national security requires thoughtful consideration about where we spend our resources, for what purpose, and to what effect.
Vic Johnson is NAFSA's senior advisor for public policy.