Fake degrees help terrorists skirt immigration, lawmakers say

Worthless university degrees “conferred” by criminal rings that help dupes and wrongdoers obtain fraudulent credentials have played a part in foreign terrorists’ plots to skirt federal immigration and visa laws, say backers of a bill pending in Congress that would crack down on the practice.

Earlier exposes of the wide extent of degree mill abuses committed by federal technologists, first reported in Government Computer News, led to the exposure of credential misrepresentation by one senior Homeland Security Department official, who lost the No. 2 job in the department’s Chief Information Officer's Office, in addition to credential fakery by dozens of other government information technology employees.

That award-winning, yearlong series of stories prompted two federal investigations, a Senate hearing and changes in the government’s methods of evaluating higher-education credentials. Attention now has been focused on the prosecution of a fake degree ring centered in Spokane, Wash.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and eight other Democrats in the House have sponsored the Diploma Integrity Protection Act as the first federal legislation since the creation of the Internet to directly confront the problem of fraud related to diploma mills.

The House Education and Labor Committee unanimously approved a major higher-education bill that includes McCollum’s language Nov. 15. The bill, H.R. 4137 or the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007, serves as a catchall vehicle for reauthorizing many education programs. It awaits action on the House floor.

“If passed, this bill would empower the U.S. departments of Education and Homeland Security to stop the use of fake degrees for purposes of federal employment and immigration and direct the Federal Trade Commission to act against diploma mills that claim to have been recognized as legitimate universities,” McCollum said.

“It would also assemble a commission of higher-education, law enforcement and legislative experts to promote federal-state cooperation in the identification of diploma mills and enable efficient enforcement along with swift prosecution,” she said in a prepared statement.

McCollum wrote recently in an op-ed article promoting her bill that “diploma mills also pose a serious threat to national security.

“A few years ago, a Syrian chemical weapons expert applied for three advanced degrees from ‘James Monroe University’ – along with a note saying that he wanted the degrees as soon as possible in order to acquire a skilled-worker visa and remain in the United States,” McCollum wrote.

“Within weeks, the phony James Monroe University sent Mohamed Syed diplomas in chemistry and engineering. The only question asked was whether he would pay with Visa, MasterCard or American Express,” she continued.

McCollum and her coauthor, longtime diploma mill opponent and University of Illinois physics professor George Gollin, went on to say that Syed was, in fact, the alias of a federal investigator. The ring responsible for James Monroe University also sold thousands more such fake degrees all over the Middle East, McCollum and Gollin said.

Gollin also serves on the board of directors of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a group that helps preserve the integrity of the nation’s university sector.

Witnesses at the Senate hearings and investigators who issued various diploma mill reports have cited credential inflation and fraud as a serious risk to the integrity of federal IT evaluation, personnel recruitment and procurement.

Wilson P. Dizard III writes for Government Computer News, an 1105 Government Information Group publication.

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