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US tightens visa checks following Boston bombings

Border agents in the US have been ordered to verify the validity of international student visas upon a student’s arrival in the country under new security procedures made effective immediately following the Boston bombings last month, reports the AP. The order came after the Obama administration confirmed that a student from Kazakhstan accused of hiding evidence for one of the bombing suspects was allowed to enter without a valid visa.

US Customs and Border Protection agents check immigrant information at the department's National Targeting Center Photo: U.S Customs and Border Protection

Agents should have direct access to SEVIS from this week

Under the new procedures, border agents will check the student’s visa status in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) before they arrive using flight manifests. If the information is unavailable, the agent will manually check in the agency’s national targeting center, the database where pre-arrival information is screened for possible terrorism threats.

Previously, SEVIS, which contains the most up-to-date information on a student’s visa and enrolment status, wasn’t made available at primary inspection stations. Only if a student was referred to a second officer for additional inspection was their status checked in SEVIS.

The man accused of hiding evidence for one of the bombing suspects, Azamat Tazhayakov, was academically dismissed in early January from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth making his visa invalid. He left the country in December but was allowed to return under the same visa in January. A spokesman for DHS said that the agent didn’t have access to information that the university had filed showing his enrolment had ended.

NAFSA is keen to avoid the international student visa route becoming unfairly tarnished

Before the bombings, DHS was working to resolve problems in the system but the internal memorandum obtained by AP last week said agents should have direct access to SEVIS from this week.

Educators are preparing international students to expect further delays upon arrival to the US. According to the AP, International Student Office Director at D’Youville College in Buffalo New York, Laryssa S. Petryshyn said the security change “is causing and will cause numerous delays for all international students entering the United States.”

A week after the bombings one US senator called for tighter control on student visa holders. In a letter to the Senate majority leader, Republican senator Rand Paul asked: “Do we need to take a hard look at student visas? Should we suspend student visas, or at least those from high-risk areas, pending an investigation into the national security implications of this program?”

The comprehensive SEVIS programme was created under the US Patriot Act passed in 2001 after it was discovered one hijacker involved in the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon in Washington DC entered under a student visa.

However, NAFSA, the US association for international education stakeholders, is keen to avoid the international student visa route becoming unfairly tarnished, pointing out that despite factually-incorrect comments, only one of the 19 terrorist hijackers involved in 9/11 entered the country on a student visa. The other 18 entered legally using tourist or business visas.


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5 Responses to US tightens visa checks following Boston bombings

  1. Not unexpected, but surely defies common-sense that SEVIS data has not previously been automatically available to border inspection agents, given the investment (cost) of the system and the compliance requirements at school level. Let’s look for better use of current resources as an alternative to additional regulation!

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