Senate Panel Amends Immigration Bill to Close Student-Visa Loopholes

The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved two significant amendments to landmark immigration legislation that would affect American colleges and the international students they enroll.

One provision would require all institutions approved by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to accept foreign students to be accredited by a regional or national accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Two years ago, a major Chronicle investigation revealed that the lack of such a requirement in current student-visa law allowed “sham” universities to enroll thousands of foreign students and permit them to work in the United States. Federal investigators concluded that, without controls to verify colleges’ legitimacy to accept foreign students, the student-visa system was vulnerable to fraud.

A second amendment would require front-line customs officials to have real-time access to the federal student-visa database within 120 days of the legislation’s enactment. The language was prompted by last month’s bombing at the Boston Marathon. A Kazakh student who has been charged with hiding evidence for one of the bombing suspects apparently entered the United States even though his status as an international student had been terminated in the database. That’s because border agents do not have access to the database, a loophole the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has vowed to close.

While colleges have said the data-sharing problem needs to be fixed, Nafsa: Association of International Educators had expressed concern about the provision because it would suspend issuance of student visas if the deadline was not met. Penalizing international students for Homeland Security’s failure to act is wrong, the organization said, noting that foreign students are far more closely tracked than other visa holders.

Both amendments, which passed the committee unanimously on voice votes, were proposed by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican. Mr. Grassley, who has voiced concern about the security of the student-visa system, also proposed several other amendments related to higher education, but they were defeated.

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