DHS invests in big data tool to detect illegal visas

Universities in the United States are well-regarded internationally, bringing in students from around the world to study. While that is a reputation worth preserving, how – and in some cases why – some of those student are coming to the country has led the Department of Homeland Security to investigate a new way to track student visas.

Schools and training centers that traffic in fake visas have drawn the ire of lawmakers and government watchdogs, forcing the hand of the DHS to invest in big data enterprise IT solutions to track the fraudulent institutions, according to NextGov. Synthesizing the data reported by schools has already led to the identification those in violation of immigration rules.

"I'm not saying we don't have a long way to go," John Woods, an assistant director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security investigations, said, according to NextGov. "We're in the process of developing risk factors, which will be in place before the close out of this fiscal year."

Poor controls

DHS was skewered in a June report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for its weak oversight of schools handing out visas to foreign students. According to the report, there is little oversight of specific I-20 forms that would assure a student is in fact who the school claims to have admitted.

More than 10,000 institutions have the right to issue an I-20 form, with one in every eight failing to be fully accredited. The GAO noted that there were certain indicators as to schools that were more likely to be troubling. Eighty-three percent of the most troublesome cases involving post-secondary institutions on the Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) compliance log "offer language, religion or flight studies, with language schools representing the highest proportion."

Criticism was levied specifically against ICE for being a largely reactionary agency. Despite holding on to massive amounts of data regarding visas, little done to monitor and use that information to improve the situation before the data analysis tool was deployed.

Big data tool

According to NextGov, DHS' recent investment allows for officials to match patterns and spot the schools that do business in fake student visas. Although some of the issues that are flagged may have far from malicious intent, other schools may engage in the trafficking of fake visas for pure profit. Poor oversight could allow a terrorist to enter the country illegally.

Any violation flagged by ICE as high risk can be referred for a potential criminal investigation.

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