According to a recent government publication and information session, institutions of higher education should expect increased scrutiny of foreign student enrollment and work authorization programs as early as September of this year.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, released in February, described an urgent need for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to take stock of risks and improve oversight of employment programs for foreign students. With 100,000 foreign students in the U.S. approved to obtain temporary work authorization during and after completion of their academic programs, the report determined that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had not fully identified risks within the program.

The report offers five recommendations to DHS and ICE in identifying and assessing risks to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). The recommendations include:

  1. Requiring that foreign students working pursuant to Optional Practical Training (OPT) report to a Designated School Official (DSO) so that their employment information can be recorded, including the employer's name and address.
  2. Developing and distributing guidance to DSOs to help determine whether a foreign student's job is related to the student's area of study. DSOs would then be required to provide information showing how they determined the connection between the job and area of study.
  3. Requiring reporting and recording of students' initial dates of employment and any periods of unemployment.
  4. Developing and providing guidance to DSOs and USCIS on the amount of time that constitutes one full academic year to assist in OPT authorization.
  5. Developing and implementing a mechanism to monitor information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) to determine if students are gaining more time in OPT than is allowable under ICE regulations.

DHS concurred with all of the recommendations in the GAO report, meaning that DSOs will potentially bear an increased burden in oversight and reporting of student employment programs. Recommendations 2, 4 and 5 are slated for September 2014 implementation, which means that DSOs and students should be prepared to comply as soon as the upcoming school year. The remaining recommendations will be implemented by January 31, 2015.

New SEVP Field Representative Unit and Representatives

In addition, DHS is putting the final plans in place to increase its visibility to schools, colleges and universities in charge of foreign students enrolled at their institutions, above and beyond any additional oversight of foreign student employment programs.

SEVP, an ICE unit within DHS, is currently training its first group of 15 SEVP field representatives who will deploy in May 2014 to three regions in the U.S. (East, Central and West). Ultimately, 20 "field reps" will be scattered throughout each region (60 total nationwide by the end of 2015). The field reps will act as customer service liaisons between SEVP and schools that are certified to enroll foreign students in F or M status.

The purpose of the field reps is four-fold:

  • Conduct one to two scheduled "school visits" in order to provide training and resources to Primary Designated School Officials (PDSOs) and DSOs.
  • Conduct scheduled institutional site visits for initial certification and re-certification for using the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and enrolling foreign students.
  • Answer PDSO and DSO questions on regulations, policies and compliance.
  • Attend local conferences and meetings.

SEVP has emphasized that while the field reps are administrative and have no enforcement mission or capability, any non-compliance issues involving fraud or gross negligence that come to their attention will be shared with relevant government authorities for follow-up. As this is a new program in its early stages, changes and updates are inevitable. This latest information comes from an April 3, 2014, webinar delivered by Steve Acton, Chief of the SEVP Field Representative Unit (FRU).

It is expected that this first group of field reps will start introducing themselves to the schools in the reps' territories as early as summer 2014. Given the emergence of this new FRU combined with the GAO recommendations noted above, schools and the foreign students they enroll should expect more oversight than they have had in the past.