Legal Brief                                                         Page 10


Starting a Foreign Student

Program at Your School


Michael Murray

Like most public schools, Presque Isle High School in rural Maine was considering new sources of revenue. But when Superintendent Gehrig Johnson was presented with a proposal to partner with a sister school in China to bring tuition-paying foreign students to Presque Isle, he was wary. Forming a partnership with a foreign organization and navigating the U.S. immigration system appeared daunting.

Based on my work on this issue with Presque Isle, I offer this advice.

Vet a foreign partner. Because foreign student sponsorships involve large sums of money and opportunistic recruiters, they don’t always have the best interest of students or the school district in mind. Ask for references and demand to see a track record. Foreign organizations can be notoriously difficult to reach in the event of a breach of contract.

Decide between the F-1 and J-1 visa. When Johnson was ready to move forward with a creditable partner, he began designing the school’s foreign student program, including the decision between a J-1 visa cultural exchange model and an F-1 visa direct sponsorship model.

The J-1 visa places an emphasis on cultural exchange and must be hosted through a cultural exchange association. Under this arrangement, the association is the direct recipient of tuition and fee income. The F-1 visa allows the school to sponsor the visas and to receive tuition and fee income directly, eliminating the middle person. However, the F-1 visa requires the district to take on administrative and legal compliance duties.

Recognize the visa’s limitation on attendance. Since 1996, a foreign student attending a public school on an F-1 visa is limited to attendance at a high school (as opposed to elementary or middle school) and is restricted to 12 months of attendance. The one-year limitation also applies to the J-1 visa, and a student may not use an F-1 and J-1 visa in successive years to attend a public school for more than one year.

Additionally, on an F-1 visa, the foreign student must reimburse the school for the full per- capita cost of attendance, meaning no public funds may be expended in connection with the student’s attendance. The student, his or her family, or another source of private funds must cover all tuition, fees and expenses.

Designate official contacts. After choosing an F-1 program, the district assembled a team of the superintendent, principal and guidance counselor to manage the program. They worked with our law firm to obtain certification through the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to issue F-1 student visas.

Up to 10 school administrators are the “designated school officials,” the only individuals authorized to deal with the federal agency and the online visa issuance program. The designees must work on location at the school and be U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. They cannot receive compensation for recruiting students.

Prepare for federal oversight. The school must allow Student and Exchange Visitor Program personnel to review its foreign student program, the proposed curriculum, English language instruction capability and the general bona fides of the school to host foreign students through what’s known as an I-17 petition.

Expect an on-site inspection. An integral part of the certification process is a visit by a federal agent to verify the adequacy of school facilities and the identity of the designated officials. The latter also will be tested on their knowledge of immigration law and procedure related to F-1 visas, so they should receive adequate training.

Presque Isle received its certification as an F-1 visa sponsor. But before any Chinese students showed up, the high school developed admissions criteria and policies to protect the students’ welfare. Then the district opened the door for a new source of cultural diversity and revenue.

Michael Murray is an attorney specializing on immigration law with Drummond Woodsum in Portland, Maine. E-mail: MMurray@dwmlaw.com


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