Agents to verify all student visas
WASHINGTON — The Homeland Security Department ordered border agents to verify that every international student who arrives in America has a valid student visa, according to an internal memorandum obtained on Friday by The Associated Press. The procedure is the government's first security change directly related to the Boston bombings.
The order, effective immediately, was issued by a senior official at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, David J. Murphy. It was circulated Thursday, a day after the Obama administration acknowledged that a student from Kazakhstan accused of hiding evidence for one of the Boston bombing suspects was allowed to return to the United States in January without a valid student visa.
The student visa for Azamat Tazhayakov had been terminated when he arrived in New York on Jan. 20. But the border agent in the airport did not have access to the information in the Homeland Security Department's Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, called SEVIS.
Tazhayakov was a friend and classmate of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Tazhayakov left the United States in December and returned Jan. 20. But in early January, his student-visa status was terminated because he was academically dismissed from the university.
Tazhayakov and a second Kazakh student were arrested this week on federal charges of obstruction of justice. They were accused of helping to get rid of a backpack containing fireworks linked to Tsarnaev. A third student was arrested and accused of lying to authorities.
A spokesman for the department, Peter Boogaard, said this week that the government was working to fix the problem, which allowed Tazhayakov to be admitted to America when he returned.
Until the change, border agents could verify a student's status in SEVIS only when the person was referred to a second officer for additional inspection or questioning. Tazhayakov was not sent to a second officer when he arrived because, Boogaard said, there was no information to indicate Tazhayakov was a national security threat. Under the new procedures, all border agents will be expected to be able to access SEVIS by next week.
The government for years has recognized as a problem the inability of border agents at primary inspection stations to directly review student-visa information. The Homeland Security Department was working before the bombings to resolve the problem, but the new memo outlined interim procedures until the situation is corrected.
Under the new procedures, border agents will verify a student's visa status before the person arrives in the United States using information provided in flight manifests.
If that information is unavailable, border agents will check the visa status manually with the agency's national targeting data center.
It is unclear what impact the procedure change will have on wait times at airports and borders. Customs officials will be required to report any effect, including longer waits, on a daily basis.
Two U.S. officials said on Thursday that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told interrogators that he and his brother considered setting off their bombs on July Fourth, but they decided to carry out their attack sooner and chose the Boston Marathon.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev faces a charge of using a weapon of mass destruction to kill. His brother, Tamerlan, was killed in a police shootout.
Three people died and more than 260 were injured in the Boston attack.