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Shortfalls of student visa system in spotlight after Boston bombing

| Saturday, May 25, 2013, 11:10 p.m.

Homeland Security officials have known for some time that computers used by frontline Customs and Border Protection agents couldn't access a centralized federal database that red-flags foreign students with invalid student visas.

Critics say the failings of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS, make it worthless as a deterrent to terrorism or crime.

“Without enforcement, laws mean nothing. I'm concerned we are creating a paper tiger,” said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton.

The flaw potentially allowed students with expired or invalid visas, or those who have dropped out of school, to enter the country, critics say.

It took alarms raised by the Boston Marathon bombings for customs officials to order on May 3 that all foreign students have their visa status checked manually at ports of entry. Customs officials have begun to roll out a pilot fix that will let incompatible computer systems “talk” to each other so agents can get to the information.

Officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which operates SEVIS, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

SEVIS can show whether a student visa has been invalidated before its official expiration date, based on information colleges enter about the student's status. The paper visas might not reflect that change.

Student visas became an issue in 2001 as one of the 9/11 hijackers, Houi Hassan, entered the country on a student visa. Two other hijackers, Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, filed requests in September 2000 to change their visa status from tourist to student. Six months after their deaths, a Florida school reported that the applications had been approved.

Solution long in coming

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, launched SEVIS in 2002, saying it would replace manual checks of student visas with an automated process that improved data collection, reporting and monitoring of schools and exchange programs.

James Dinkins, executive associate director of homeland security investigations for ICE, told a congressional subcommittee last week that the agency has been aware of the flaw in the SEVIS database “for some time” and put in a preliminary computer fix last month that gives agents access to the database.

A permanent solution has been long in coming because of differences in technology, Dinkins said.

According to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, ICE became aware of the problem in 2007.

Concerns about SEVIS resurfaced with the Boston bombings in April.

Federal prosecutors charged Azamat Tazhayakov, a Kazakh student who had re-entered the United States in January on an invalid student visa, with obstruction for allegedly destroying evidence to help accused bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

“It was frightening to realize — 11 years after 9/11 — that we still have not fixed this problem,” Barletta said.

On May 3, David J. Murphy, acting assistant commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, ordered border agents to manually verify the visa status of everyone arriving in the United States with a student visa, as officials worked to make SEVIS accessible to frontline agents.

“I think the fact that terrorism exists is a much bigger issue, and making immigration harder is not going to solve it. It's like putting a Band-Aid on top of a much bigger wound that needs surgery,” said Ketaki Desai, 31, of India who holds a doctorate in biomedical science and recently earned a master's degree in public management from Carnegie Mellon University. Desai has studied in the United States on a student visa for 11 years.

Dinkins told the House subcommittee on border and maritime security that ICE began rolling out a solution in April — several months after Tazhayakov slipped through the system — to make SEVIS data visible to Customs and Border Protection agents.

Dinkins' testimony did little to ease some congressional concerns.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he was surprised to learn “that the administration isn't verifying that any student coming into the country has a valid student visa.” He added an amendment to a Senate immigration bill that would require the government to stop issuing student visas if the loophole isn't closed within 120 days of the bill's passage.

Customs and Border Protection officers can admit a student with invalid documents on a 30-day temporary pass to give them time to resolve the issue, agency spokeswoman Stephanie Malin said. She did not comment further.

Colleges' responsibilities

Joe DeCrosta, who oversees 735 foreign students as the director of Duquesne University's office of International Programs, has encountered students who have re-entered the country on invalid visas or university enrollment documents, which are known as I-20s.

“People might think that person was illegal and trying to skirt the system. Technically they are, but in reality, that's not the case,” he said, attributing it to oversights by 18- and 19-year-old students who might not understand the process.

Nearly 40,000 foreign students enrolled in 399 schools in Pennsylvania this year. A survey of schools in Western Pennsylvania showed that nearly 10,000 of them enrolled at colleges and universities here.

Foreign students are a boon for cash-strapped colleges because they pay top tuition rates.

China, India and South Korea top the list of countries that have 937,033 students enrolled in U.S. colleges.

International students make up nearly one-third of Carnegie Mellon's full-time enrollment. Linda Gentile, director of the university's Office of International Education, oversees 3,660 foreign students with a staff of nine.

Colleges that accept foreign students must report a student's status to SEVIS upon their registration and update it at the end of every semester. They must file interim reports on changes in the student's address, phone number, field of study or student standing such as medical leave or suspension within 15 days. A single college staffer might be responsible for hundreds of foreign students as well as U.S. students studying abroad.

An estimated 7,300 students overstay their visas each year, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a research institute that favors restrictions on immigration.

“ICE makes almost no effort to track down and remove those students who either lied about their intentions in the first place or changed their minds once they got here and decided to stay and get a job,” she said.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., said colleges need to take more responsibility for students they invite to the country.

Bilirakis has introduced bills in every session since he was elected in 2006 to require colleges to report on foreign students every 30 days and mandate the placement of additional visa security units at U.S. consular offices to vet prospective students.

“Student visas are a great program, but there are folks taking advantage of it, and lives are at risk,” he warned.

Once a school reports a problem, ICE becomes the enforcer, DeCrosta said.

Critics like Vaughan claim the agency does not take that responsibility seriously.

Dinkins told the subcommittee that ICE compares information on students who overstay their visas against criminal, terrorism and intelligence databases. The agency screens out those not known to be a threat and places the rest on a law enforcement hot list that the FBI releases daily to law enforcement agencies.

Paul Rosenzweig, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation who studies immigration and national security, said students made up a small portion of the 8.9 million foreign visitors who entered the United States on visas last year and are the most closely monitored class of visitors.

“But if you look at the data on who is likely to be criminals or terrorists, there is no correlation between that and students,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or

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