Boston bombing fallout: US moves to close security gap on student visas

Student visa snafu involving a Kazakh friend of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston bombing suspect, prompts US to beef up security checks. Will the episode undermine chances for comprehensive immigration reform?

Dias Kadyrbayev (l.), with Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, at an unknown location. Mr. Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, two college buddies of Mr. Tsarnaev's from Kazakhstan, were jailed by immigration authorities the day after Tsarnaev's capture. They are being held for violating their student visas by not regularly attending classes.

The Boston Marathon bombing has yielded its first change in US security policy, with the government ordering border agents to check the validity of visas for every international student entering the United States for study.

The order, effective immediately, was prompted by revelations that a Kazakh college student, a friend of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was allowed to reenter the US after winter break even though his student visa had been revoked 16 days earlier because of poor grades. The student from Kazakhstan is now in federal custody for allegedly removing evidence from Mr. Tsarnaev’s dorm room and discarding it before authorities conducted a search.

Those obstruction of justice charges against Azamat Tazhayakov and a fellow Kazakh student, Dias Kadyrbayen, put renewed scrutiny on America’s student visa program – and found its enforcement wanting. The security gap may serve to buttress the arguments of those who say border and visa enforcement remain too spotty for Congress to responsibly consider a sweeping immigration reform measure that would grant legal status to many of the 10 million illegal immigrants already living in the US.

The problem with student visas has been known for years, and US officials say a permanent fix is in the works. The new order, which The Associated Press obtained Friday, presents a work-around in the meantime. It uses airlines’ flight manifests to identify incoming foreign students, and US border agents will verify their visa status while the students are en route to the US, according to AP’s report on an internal memo circulated with the Department of Homeland Security’s US Customs and Border Protection.

America’s colleges and universities are a magnet for students worldwide: Twenty-one percent of all college students studying abroad attend schools in the US, according to an April report by the Brookings Institution in Washington. 

That was almost 700,000 foreign students as of 2010 – or about 3.5 percent of total higher education enrollment in the US, the report said. The number has been growing as colleges and universities stepped up recruitment of students abroad, who often pay higher tuition rates.

The permanent fix to the student visa verification process will allow all border agents access to the Homeland Security Department's Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. Colleges feed information about the enrollment status of their foreign students into SEVIS. But under DHS procedures previously in effect, border agents used SEVIS to check on a student’s visa only if he or she were targeted at entry for a second level of questioning or inspection, AP reports.

Mr. Tazhayakov’s lawyer has said his client did not realize that the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, where he had been studying, had revoked his visa in early January, so the 19-year-old returned to the US for the second semester of study.

Then, border agents at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport did not use SEVIS to verify Tazhayakov’s student visa because they had no national security reason to target him for that second level of questioning, a DHS spokesman told AP on Friday. SEVIS is expected to be accessible to all border agents next week.

UMass Dartmouth has said it supplied all relevant information about Tazhayakov and Mr. Kadyrbayen to federal authorities.

“After a full review of our records, we are very confident that the university followed all laws and policies related to the international students arrested in connection with the Boston Marathon tragedy,” John Hoey, assistant chancellor for public affairs, told The Boston Globe on Friday.

Tazhayakov’s lawyer has said that the student, upon realizing he’d been kicked out of school, switched majors and reenrolled.

But the circumstances of Tazhayakov’s reentry – and the fact that Kadyrbayen, too, was still in the US after UMass terminated his student status in late February – were cause for concern on Capitol Hill.

"The fact that a foreign national was able to reenter the US with what appeared to be a valid student visa, while Customs and Border Protection officers were unaware that his visa status had become invalid, represents a serious hole in our national security," Rep. Michael McCaul (R) of Texas told CNN on Friday. "The front-line CBP officers did not have access to the system that would've informed them of a change in legal status."

Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayen remain in federal custody on charges of obstructing justice, having allegedly disposed of a backpack and empty fireworks that might have tied Tsarnaev to the marathon bombing. US citizen Robel Phillipos, a third friend of the bombing suspect, is also in custody on federal charges of lying to authorities during a terrorism investigation.

The Obama administration has also said it is reviewing whether US agencies appropriately shared sensitive information about the second Boston bombing suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and whether the government could have prevented the April 15 attack. House Republicans, likewise, plan to hold hearings about the government's conduct, beginning Thursday.

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