Posted on August 27, 2019

Foreign Students and National Security: Student Visa Overstays

Jessica M. Vaughan, Center for Immigration Studies, August 26, 2019

My colleague Dan Cadman has explained how our admission of very large numbers of foreign students and exchange visitors creates national security risks. My colleague David North has explained the large pipeline of additional foreign workers created by the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program.

Compounding the problem is the finding by the Department of Homeland Security’s annual overstay report that the student and exchange visa programs have the highest rates of overstays among all broad visa categories (see Table 1). In other words, those who come here on student visas are more likely to violate the terms of their visa and stay on illegally, contributing to our illegal immigration problem.

{snip} Some countries, like China, India, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and South Korea, have better rates of compliance on paper, but because we admit so many students from those countries even a small percentage of people who overstay translates into a very large number of visa violators. China leads the list in 2018 with almost 13,000 people who overstayed their visas in the student and exchange visitor category. These five countries represent 44 percent of the total number of student/exchange visitor overstays.

Other countries are a problem because of extremely poor compliance rates by their citizens. While we don’t issue a lot of visas in these countries, it’s still a problem because of countries like Eritrea, where more than half of the people who get a student or exchange visa don’t go home. While it was only about 40 people in 2018, it still begs the question: Why are we issuing so many visas in a country where more than half of the people are not going to comply?

Some of these are countries of concern because of national security considerations, such as lacking robust identification programs, and some are travel-ban countries.

Further, some of the countries on this list are so-called recalcitrant countries that do not accept their citizens back for deportation, even if we were to actually locate, arrest, and try to remove them.

The DHS data on student/exchange overstays shows that, over the last three years, even as the number of visa issuances has been reduced, for the most part the overstay rates are still very high. {snip}

{snip} Again, we can see very large numbers of overstays from countries of concern for espionage like China and Iran, and countries of national-security concern like Saudi Arabia. In addition, the list includes quite a few countries with double-digit noncompliance rates, like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan.

Why should we be so concerned about student and exchange visitors in particular, when the overstay numbers are small relative to some other visa categories, like regular temporary visitor visas? Student/exchange visa overstays represent only about 5 percent of the entire overstay population.

First, because student/exchange visitors are admitted for a long period of time and with relatively little supervision.

Second, because these visa programs allow people who would not otherwise qualify for a visa to gain admission to the United States. These are people who are relatively young, perhaps not in stable employment, and thus represent a high risk for overstaying. But under our system, if they can get a college, community college, vocational school, or exchange program to accept them as participants or enroll them as students, they probably can get a student visa.

For these and other reasons, the student visa program has a proven association with terrorists, such as the 9/11 terrorists, and with espionage.


Although our government has developed a way to track which students do not maintain status in their course of study and there are ways to determine which entities may not have rigorous academic programs, ICE still devotes very little of its resources to enforcing the law against programs like these and their participants. ICE states explicitly that its overstay enforcement is limited to those students considered to be national-security or public-safety threats, and the rest are largely ignored.

For this discussion I extracted the data on removals of aliens classified by ICE as students from ICE’s deportation records for the last three years (obtained through a FOIA request). In that period, ICE removed just over 400 students, with 170 students removed in FY 2018 (the most recent year available). This is a tiny share of the huge population of a million foreign students, and tens of thousands of overstays. I calculated that about four-tenths of 1 percent of student visitors who overstayed that year faced any threat of enforcement. Such a low rate of removals is an incentive for people to try to gain admission as foreign students, knowing that there is very little chance of enforcement if they remain illegally.

So who did ICE go after? The largest number of students removed were from Saudi Arabia, with others from China, Kenya, India, Nigeria, Jordan, and a scattering of other countries (see Table 4 and Table 5). {snip}


[Editor’s Note: The original story contains tables that will interest some readers, and it links to a transcript of a panel and a video on this subject.]