US orders visa reviews for arriving students

Glitch allowed Kazakh student to re-enter country
2013-05-04T00:00:00Z US orders visa reviews for arriving studentsThe Associated Press The Associated Press
May 04, 2013 12:00 am  • 

WASHINGTON - The Homeland Security Department ordered border agents to verify that every international student who arrives in the U.S. has a valid student visa, according to an internal memorandum obtained Friday by The Associated Press.

The new procedure is the government's first security change directly related to the Boston bombings.

The order, which is effective immediately, came from a senior official at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, David J. Murphy. It was circulated Thursday, one 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 U.S. 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 U.S. in December and returned Jan. 20. But in early January, his student-visa status was terminated because he had been 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 also arrested and accused of lying to authorities.

A spokesman for the department, Peter Boogaard, said earlier this week that the government was working to fix the problem, which allowed Tazhayakov to be admitted into the country when he returned to the U.S.

Under existing procedures, 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. Taz-hayakov was not sent to a second officer when he arrived, because, Boogaard said, there was no information to indicate he was a national security threat. Under the new procedures, all border agents were 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 outlines 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 U.S. 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 new procedure 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.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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