When you come to study in the U.S. as a nonimmigrant student (F-1 or M-1), your DSO (Designated School Official) becomes an important person in your life. The DSO is responsible for creating your Form I-20, keeping you informed of the federal rules and regulations governing your visa status, and in some cases facilitating your interactions with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Your DSO may also serve as a guide to living and surviving in the United States. For example, many DSOs provide help with understanding American social expectations such as dating and communicating with friends or professors, as well as assistance with culture shock issues. The DSO may even provide a friendly shoulder on which to cry.
However, you should never forget that your DSO has official responsibilities to your university's international student program. If you tell your DSO about something you've done that amounts to a violation of your student visa status, he or she is responsible for reporting your violation to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP).
A DSO who fails to report a student's violation could place the whole university in danger of losing the privilege of hosting international students. This would be a big price to pay for keeping your violation a secret. Although your DSO may feel sad about having to do so, he or she will report your violation to avoid risking the entire university's reputation, not to mention the DSO's job!
Here are three examples of serious immigration violations that your DSO would truly hate to hear that you've done:
The obvious solution is not to engage in these activities in the first place. But if it's too late for that, realize that your DSO is not going to be able to cover for you. You may need to speak to an immigration attorney, for the reasons further described below.
Your right to work in the U.S. as a student is strictly limited. If you work without authorization, you could be found unlawfully present in the U.S., which would seriously harm your ability to live in, work in, or (after a departure) reenter the United States. If you bring an incident of unauthorized employment to the attention of your DSO, he or she has an obligation to report your actions to SEVP. This will result in the immediate termination of your student visa status.
For an in-depth discussion of unauthorized employment as it relates to the F-1 student, please read "F-1 Students and Work Violations.".
Another common problem is when student visa applicants submit financial documents reflecting money that is not actually theirs or will not be accessible during their academic stay in the United States. This can occur either when obtaining the student visa or asking the DSO to grant an extension of Form I-20.
Such actions may constitute visa fraud, which occurs when someone gives incorrect information, conceals relevant facts, or misrepresents anything on an F-1, M-1, or other visa application. Visa fraud is a federal offense, punishable by up to ten years in prison and a fine of $250,000. Even if you avoid criminal prosecution for visa fraud, you will likely be deported from the U.S. and subject to a lifetime bar on reentering this country. (See "Immigrants in Deportation or Removal Proceedings.")
How would your DSO discover that you've submitted fraudulent financial documentation? This can occur when the DSO conducts a thorough review of your case file. Your DSO is required to keep detailed case files, including copies of all of the documents you submitted to show the financial support required to obtain the initial F-1 or M-1 visa and subsequent I-20 extensions.
When you request an extension of your Form I-20, your DSO must determine whether you have been maintaining proper student status before granting the extension. He or she will look back through all of the documentation in your file to make that determination. If your DSO discovers that you have committed visa fraud, he or she must, by law, report your status violation to SEVP by terminating your student status in the SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor's Information System).
The third immigration violation that a DSO absolutely cannot help you cover up is marriage fraud. You may have already had conversations with other students who, knowing that you must leave the U.S. when your student stay expires, wonder whether one of your mutual U.S. citizen friends wouldn't be willing to marry you.
Realize, however, that any arrangement in which you enter into a marriage to a U.S. citizen that is not in good faith; that is, where the marriage is specifically for the purpose of obtaining a green card; is marriage fraud. A good faith marriage is one in which you have every intention of creating a life together as a married couple.
Two common examples of marriage fraud are either paying a broker or middleman to locate a willing U.S. citizen or paying a U.S. citizen directly to marry you and file for your green card. But even a marriage where no money changes hands can constitute marriage fraud. (For more information, see "What Is Marriage Fraud Under U.S. Immigration Law?")
If you share with your DSO that you have already committed marriage fraud, your DSO, again, has the duty to report your actions to SEVP, thus resulting in the termination of your student visa status.
It is important to keep in mind that, although your DSO is friendly and helpful, he or she has a greater obligation to ensure the future of the college's international program than to you and must report your immigration violations to SEVP. This can result in the termination of your student visa status and make it difficult if not impossible to obtain any future U.S. visa or status. If you find yourself in a situation where you feel you may be in serious violation of your student status, contact an immigration lawyer immediately for advice.
Updated by: Ilona Bray, J.D.