Illegal U: An Immigration Scam in Plain Sight

The often desperate measures foreigners take to enter our borders—crossing deserts being packed into trucks, and surviving unspeakable brutalities—rightly provoke our anger and evoke our pity. Because of the pathos involved in this kind of illegal entry, we often overlook the fact that there is a far safer and common  way for would-be illegals to enter our country. It is a method of entry that should produce even more anger and disgust because of its blatant opportunism; even as it is more likely to result in arrangements that could be mutually profitable.

Some enterprising persons (both foreigners and citizens) have set up colleges to attract and often exploit foreign students. Some of these schools have foreign enrollment of 95 percent or more.

You’ve heard of diploma mills; welcome to its adjoining world of visa mills.

Most academics know how even venerable American schools seek the enrollment of foreign students whose wealthy parents pay full-freight tuition (and sometimes then some) to keep those desperate institutions afloat. But the colleges I am describing don’t even need to field a ping-pong, let alone a football team to attract students. Where there’s a market, profit-seeking gangs will follow.

The notion of establishing a college intended for an otherwise illegal alien market flabbergasted me some 20 years ago when I evaluated some categories of colleges for the State of Virginia. In my brief time (1999-2000) at Virginia’s State Council of Higher Education (SCHEV), I examined the credentials of marginal, for-profit colleges, which sometimes had high portions of foreign students. Their administrations were dominated by foreign men. At least one emphasized its ties with a foreign nation.   

In one egregious instance, I found clear signs of dishonesty: the school claimed faculty who denied to me they had anything to do with the institution. Other faculty listed inflated their credentials. SCHEV did nothing, claiming the agency lacked the resources to do a thorough examination of each applicant for institutional approval.

Other schools had ties to foreign countries that compromised their integrity as academic institutions. The higher-ups then at SCHEV just shrugged their shoulders, saying the best the state government could do was emphasize a “buyer beware” mentality for consumers (a.k.a., gullible students).

My anecdotal evidence of such corruption was recently substantiated and expanded by the Center for Immigration Studies senior researcher David North (together with Rodney North), who examined 55 colleges throughout the United States. The Norths have systematically exposed a vast racket among dozens of marginal colleges, which rake in many millions of dollars from overseas visitors, who scarcely merit being called students.

But the Norths do more than expose the fraudulent nature of these rackets; they also expose the fraud of businesses pretending to be institutions of higher education for “students” interested only in gaining easy entrance into the country.

Of the 55 compromised schools, 42 are for-profit, often vocational schools (for example, with degree offerings in film arts, dog training, and business). Their 40,000 students are found in 17 States, with the majority located in California (17), Florida (11), and Virginia (8). Most of these institutions engage in “shady financial practices” (enormous tuitions, with huge salaries and benefits for presidents) and low academic standards. (I have reviewed many SCHEVapplications for such places.)  

The bureaucratic details are dizzying and are in toto preposterous, especially when we see how opportunistic students and college presidents readily exploit them. They’ve merely taken advantage of a largely sensible decentralization of regulations coupled with an unreflective open-borders mentality that has taken hold of higher education and government.

But let’s leave the details to the forms, tables, and bureaucratic labyrinths of the Norths’ nuanced yet explosive report and focus instead on the major vulnerabilities it exposes.

A brief background guide may assist the reader in navigating the higher education swamp that is part and parcel of the administrative state.

One of the great strengths of American education is the diversity of practices it permits, partly as a natural result of regional and state differences and the different kinds of schools—private, religious, for-profit, military, and state. Above these institutions, for colleges, is a nationalized overlay of accrediting institutions, mostly regional, but approved by the U.S. Department of Education. (Professional schools, such as law schools, use national trade organizations for this purpose.)

Where the Department of Education and the national elite education groups see only students and teachers and their particular interests, the Department of Homeland Security and its relevant division of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement sees potential threats from illegal immigrants, who use existing schools (of dramatically varying qualities) and even invent or expand the market for schools created to legalize their presence.

In the zeal to freeze out fake schools and keep out posing students, would world-class universities be hindered from getting the best students from abroad?  My own graduate school, The New School for Social Research, was initially comprised of distinguished faculty from Europe who had fled the Nazis.

Even the Norths concede that a couple of the schools on their list of 55 “compromised colleges” offered some worthwhile, specialized programs (e.g., a film school that has won Emmys). National security concerns make the swamp even murkier. Colleges (and K-12 schools) set up by the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen arise in Turkish President Erdogan’s demands that the cleric be extradited.  Such schools may have found favor with the federal government as an appropriate response to radical Islamic institutions, but I could find no recent writing on this.

In any case, do we really want to replicate the civil wars of the Middle East?

An even worse example of a questionable entity might be Arlington, Virginia’s University of Management and Technology, accused of having Chinese military ties.

Of course, a fact in need of publicity is that these compromised institutions for foreigners are, in many ways, merely caricatures of what passes today for higher education.  

Among politicians, consider the campaign of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe promising Korean-Americans school textbooks that corrected the name of the “Sea of Japan.” It is no longer merely our own over-delicate sensibilities on matters of political correctness to which we must bow. We will now bow to those of foreigners as well.

Inflated salaries for administrators (who are often owners), ridiculous tuitions for students, joke courses, and now American schools set up, more or less exclusively, for foreigners—where have we seen these before? The foreigners are in that sense not all that worse than the Americans, just more clumsy, and often with bad English. Is America reflecting the world, or is the world reflecting America?

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About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.