Officials to take closer look at foreign student visas

The Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, has ordered heightened scrutiny of international students entering the United States following the Boston bombings in April.

“Effective immediately”, border agents must verify that each foreign student holds a valid visa, a federal law enforcement official told the Associated Press earlier this month.

The order, which marks the government’s first security change following the terrorist attack, which killed three and injured more than 260 people, came from David J Murphy, a senior official at US Customs and Border Protection.

The new procedure came one day after the government acknowledged that Azamat Tazhayakov, a student from Kazakhstan accused of being a potential accomplice of one of the Boston bombing suspects, was permitted to return to the US in January without a valid student visa.

Tazhayakov, who was a friend and classmate of bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, left the US in December and returned in January. But he should not have been allowed back in; his student visa had been terminated after he was given an academic dismissal from the university.

While his expired student visa status was, according to the official, in the Homeland Security Department’s Student and Exchange Visitor System (SEVIS), the border agent apparently did not have easy access to it.

And that is where the problem lies. The new procedure will give customs agents faster and better access to the SEVIS database that tracks student visas.

DHS spokesperson Peter Boogaard said the government "is reforming the student visa system to ensure that [Customs and Border Protection] is provided with real-time updates on all relevant student visa information.

“At the time of re-entry there was no derogatory information that suggested this individual posed a national security or public safety threat," he added.

In a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, Iowa Senator Charles Grassley questioned what he called the “loopholes” in the system.

“It’s surprising that the administration isn’t already verifying that any student coming into the country has a valid visa,” Grassley wrote on 3 May. “What’s more concerning is that nearly 12 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we haven’t fixed the problems with identifying visa overstays.”

Grassley, who is currently the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, also pointed out the section on the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement website that gives advice to students who have expired visas on how they can still re-renter the country.

“This language seems to advertise the fact that in some cases, non-immigrants may be readmitted to the United States even if they are travelling on a terminated SEVIS record,” wrote Grassley.

The academic community supports the need for the SEVIS data to be easily accessible at ports of entry, said Institute of International Education President Allan Goodman. While the proposed increased scrutiny of international students may cause delays at border control, this will likely not deter students from applying to study in the US, he said.

“The breadth of academic opportunity here continues to attract students in growing numbers, and they are not likely to change their plans due to tightened review procedures at ports of entry,” Goodman told University World News.

He said he believed the “technical issues” at border control would be speedily resolved.

Other than that, international students entering the country have already been screened and vetted more closely than any other visa category, Goodman said, and colleges and universities make sure their records are regularly updated in the SEVIS system.

Tazhayakov and another Kazakh student were arrested in early May on federal criminal charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice. They were accused of trying to hide Tsarnaev’s laptop, as well as a backpack that contained fireworks.

Both students face a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Details about Tazhayakov's immigration status were revealed in late April during an immigration hearing after the judge asked how he was permitted to enter the US in January. Tazhayakov’s lawyer said his client had re-enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth with a different major after returning to the US.

While it is important that America’s borders remain secure, said Goodman, it is just as important that the US continues to welcome international students to its shores.

“America’s students and universities benefit as much from having international students on their campus as do the international students who come here for a top quality education,” he said.