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Report faults oversight of foreign student program

WASHINGTON — The government is falling short in assessing the risks of a program that allows tens of thousands of foreign students to stay in the United States and work for close to 2 1/2 years, according to a newly released report from the Government Accountability Office.

The GAO, Congress’ investigative arm, examined the optional practical training program in Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As of November 2013, the program had approved 100,000 of the 1 million foreign students in the U.S. to work for 12-31 months in a job related to their completed academic studies.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, requested the investigation.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement “has taken initial actions to identify risks across student and exchange visitor program-certified schools; however, ICE has not analyzed available information to identify and assess potential risks specific to the (program) posed by schools and foreign students,” the GAO concluded in its Feb. 27 report.

Specifically, the report raised the possibility of the government losing track of students who might overstay their visas, bogus companies or organizations exploiting the students.

Deadly attacks in the United States, including the February 1993 assault on the World Trade Center and the explosions at the Boston Marathon last April, have increased the scrutiny of the government’s monitoring of foreign students.

Grassley expressed concerns about the program’s serious integrity issues and wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson this week, calling on him to put the program on hold until problems are fixed.

“The report not only calls into question the department’s oversight of the program, but also whether such lack of oversight is a serious national security risk,” Grassley wrote to Johnson on March 5.

In 2010, the senator wrote to Homeland Security asking whether Faisal Shazad, a Pakistani-American, used the program as news reports had suggested. Shazad is serving a life sentence after admitting he built a car bomb he left in Times Square to avenge U.S. military intervention in Muslim countries.

“While it is difficult to know how many other potential terrorists may have exploited (the program) to remain in the United States, it is clear that the program requires an immediate overhaul before another potential terrorist exploits it,” Grassley wrote in the latest letter.

In response to the overall report, the Homeland Security Department concurred with GAO recommendations to improve the program and described steps that are under way. The department said the student and exchange visitor program was working with the Counterterrorism and Criminal Exploitation Unit to identify risks for schools and students in the training program.

The department said it was “pleased to note GAO’s positive recognition of the department’s effort to develop and implement processes to identify and address risks” within the student and exchange program.

Grassley outlined the popularity of the program which approved 28,497 students in 2008. That number jumped significantly, with 123,328 students allowed to come to the U.S. in 2013.

The report found that senior officials in the student and visitor exchange program consider the training program a “low-risk employment benefit because, in part, they believe foreign students under the program do not have an incentive to jeopardize their foreign student visa status and future legal status to stay and work in the United States.”

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