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Issues with Foreign-exchange Students in High School Athletics Programs

By Nate Perry on February 12, 2020 hst Print

Every year, thousands of high school foreign-exchange students come from all over the world to further their education in the United States. While each of them has their own interests and priorities at heart, the goal is to provide these teenage travelers with comprehensive snapshots of modern American life in the classroom, in athletics and activities programs, and in their host communities. Equally as important is to place them with well-intentioned, compatible families who will help maximize the value of their experience.

The Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET), an evaluation and certification agency for secondary international student exchange programs, is dedicated to providing that exact environment to as many students as possible. Thus, CSIET supports exchange programs that perform extensive background checks on prospective hosts and focus on a well-rounded student experience. However, not all students use a CSIET-approved program, which can lead to issues in a variety of areas, including student safety and competitive integrity in interscholastic athletics.

In order to pursue their education in the United States, foreign students must gain entry by using one of two distinct types of non-immigrant Visas – a J-1 Visa or an F-1 Visa. Each Visa has a corresponding application document; a DS-2019 must be filled out to obtain a J-1 Visa, while an I-20 form is required for an F-1.

J-1 Visas have a strict one-year duration, must come through a travel program evaluated by the Department of State’s (DOS) extensive vetting process, and are focused on a multi-faceted “cultural” experience for students. During the 2018-19 school year, nearly all of the 24,000 J-1 students in American schools were processed by one of 61 CSIET-approved J-1 Visa organizations.

In contrast, F-1 Visas are sought by a much larger group of exchange students and can be arranged by any educational program – and even individual schools – on the basis of “academics,” provided they are I-20 certified by the less-stringent Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Only a small fraction of DHS certified secondary schools issuing F-1 Visas meet CSIET Standards, meaning less-thorough vetting of hosts and their intentions, and no regulations on athletics-specific placement.

“The potential inconsistencies would be in terms of who is bringing in F-1 students and for how long,” said CSIET Executive Director Chris Page. “To put the numbers in context, we have 60 F-1 organizations in the United States that are certified with CSIET and bring in about 8,500 students. If you took a snapshot of the number of foreign students that were in the United States on F-1 Visas last year (approximately 52,000), CSIET organizations represented roughly 16 percent.”

Before addressing some of the problems that state associations are experiencing with regard to F-1 foreign-exchange students, it’s important to mention that the vast majority of foreign students are not relevant parties. The following issues and situations pertain to the high-profile athletic impact of a select number of students rather than the standard experiences of the larger group.

Any J-1 or F-1 exchange student placed in a public school can only stay at that school for one year. However, while J-1 students then have no option but to return to their native land, F-1 students may transfer to nonpublic schools where they can be retained for the duration of their high school experience. Through the combination of these factors, the system can be exploited, especially in a sport like basketball where one or two players can affect the outlook of an entire season.

“It certainly has changed the balance of power in some places where a student comes from a non-CSIET certified program and ends up here,” said Bernie Dolan, executive director of the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission. “All of a sudden, some teams are pretty good because they have kids who are 6-foot-8 or 6-10 or 7-foot.”

Further, the issue stokes the coals of animosity between public and private schools with regard to recruiting tactics.

“In some states, people are angry because the private schools get an unfair advantage,” said Kerwin Urhahn, executive director of the Missouri State High School Activities Association and chair-elect on the CSIET Board of Directors. “They will say, ‘now, (private schools) aren’t just getting kids from their neighboring communities, but they’re getting them from around the world!”

To Urhahn, the biggest concern from both a safety and competitive standpoint is the lax definition of what constitutes a student’s “guardian” in a non-CSIET program. In many non-CSIET certified F-1 programs, there is very little – if any – investigation done into a student’s American sponsor; and since schools issue their own I-20 forms, they are also free to line up their own hosts. This power, coupled with the desire and/or pressure to succeed in athletics, can lead to questionable decision-making that can put students at risk.

“There’s nobody overseeing this,” Urhahn said. “All that really happens is (DHS) looks at the application and says, ‘they have the I-20, they have a guardian, they have no criminal aspects to their background, approve that F-1 Visa and come on over.’”

“Most states are great with the CSIET programs because they know that the application process has been properly vetted. The (non-approved) F-1 students, who can come over to a nonpublic school and stay there for four years – who’s vetted them? Who’s checking to make sure they’re getting in for the right reasons? Who’s making sure that the people they’re living with are doing things right?”

And the people they’re living with aren’t always coaches or traditional school-affiliated families, either. Sometimes they can be what Page and Urhahn both refer to as “agents” – individuals employed by third parties to locate and influence high-end athletic talent in foreign countries. Unfortunately, not all these young athletes turn out to be stars, and things can turn sinister if agents deem them no longer valuable.

“We certainly don’t deal with this every day, but there are students who are brought over on an I-20 who are basically left to fend for themselves,” Urhahn said. That’s where my issue comes in. There are those agents out there who are trying to bring kids over, and when they realize a kid can’t do all the things they thought he could do, that kid can be left in the wind as a 16-year-old who doesn’t know very many people in this country.”

Guardians can be switched very easily as well, which presents another threat to the competitive landscape.

Consider the following hypothetical scenario advanced by Urhahn:

A student on an F-1 Visa is placed at a nonpublic school with a suitable sponsor and intends to stay at that school throughout his or her high school years. The student then participates in a sport program and becomes a prominent player on a team that otherwise includes average or below-average talent. Primed to achieve great success in that sport during the following season, a coach or admissions official at a nonpublic school in a different city notices the student’s talent and begins to recruit him or her to transfer. Since minimal investigation and record-keeping is typical with most non-CSIET certified F-1 Visa programs, all the school must do is find the student a host and coerce a fictitious story from him or her regarding the current sponsor.

“The student tells his family in his home country to switch the guardian and the narrative then becomes, ‘I have to go to this school because that’s where my guardian lives, and therefore I should be eligible to play immediately,’” Urhahn said. “When we ask these students why they are changing schools, they say, ‘I didn’t get along with my previous guardian’ or ‘they kicked me out,’ and we can’t corroborate that because we have no way of getting that information.”

The issues caused by these situations are not lost on state associations. Work continues to be done to address them, but in many cases, associations are still trying to figure out exactly what they are up against and are, therefore, still in the preliminary stages.

“Right now, we’re just trying to grasp what programs are actually bringing these students here and figure out what we can do to work with whoever is doing it,” Dolan said. “We need to understand how they’re deciding where these kids are placed and try to direct them toward becoming CSIET-approved.”

While the concerns cannot be fully eradicated as long as non-CSIET certified F-1 programs exist, CSIET is also taking steps to reduce the effects by broadening membership to include more associations and individual schools, initiatives Page feels have the highest potential to create change.

“We have recently opened up our certification process to allow for the certification of non-U.S.-based F-1 student recruitment agencies,” Page said. “We’re just beginning this, but that’s where we’re headed. We also have a vehicle in place for the evaluation of schools themselves, but it is currently undersubscribed. If there is going to be change in the number of students represented by CSIET, it’s going to be through these two services, as our number of U.S.-based organizations is not likely to change that much. So, if we were to put out a call to action to schools, athletic associations and international organizations that do recruiting, it would be to get them involved with CSIET certification programs.”