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Terror Attack Prompts Scrutiny of US Visa System - 2001-10-07

The investigation of the September 11 terrorist attacks has revealed that 16 of the 19 hijackers entered the United States on non-immigrant visas. Several had overstayed their visas. One hijacker had entered on a student visa, but never showed up at the school where he was enrolled. U.S. lawmakers are pushing for measures to better track and identify foreign visitors who abuse, or overstay, their visas.

U.S Senator Olympia Snow is blunt about the goal of draft legislation meant to help the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the INS, more effectively identify and track visa abuse. "We have to make sure that those who could pose a threat to the United States never enter the United States and never step on our soil," he said.

Immigration experts say the first line of defense are U.S. consulates overseas, which have to screen visa applicants.

U.S. Senator Christopher Bond is proposing measures to improve the investigation process and introduce electronic identification kits to prevent visa fraud and abuse.

Mr. Bond also wants the INS to keep better track of non-immigrant visa holders, once they arrive in the United States. "This tracking system gives law enforcement one more tool to be able to identify somebody who is here illegally, and potentially subject to the more expedited procedures that the INS has for getting potentially dangerous alien visitors out of the country," he said.

That may be easier said than done. The State Department issued more than seven million non-immigrant visas last year alone, to tourists, business travelers and students.

The INS has been testing an automated visa tracking system, but it does not yet cover all ports of entry.

Former INS lawyer Paul Virtue says the INS currently lacks the resources to track foreign visitors effectively. "There are a little over 2,000 INS special agents, who are the police officers responsible for policing a number of immigration issues within the United States," he said. "Their principle role is to identify and remove people who commit crimes in the United States. But, they also are responsible for investigating and prosecuting fraud, as well as any smuggling, and [imposing] sanctions against [U.S.] employers for hiring people [illegal immigrants] without authorization. So, they have a lot on their plate, and there are very few of them."

An automated tracking system also would not cover the hundreds-of-thousands of visitors from 29 countries, whose citizens do not need U.S. visas to travel to the United States. Many more people hold multiple-entry visas, which are valid for several years.

Immigration experts also point out that freedom of movement also makes it difficult to monitor suspicious visitors, who may change or falsify addresses during their stay.

Lawmakers are urging better coordination and more information-sharing among the INS, State Department and law enforcement agencies, to weed out suspected criminals.

Senator Christopher Bond has called for tighter security measures to prevent the abuse of non-immigrant visas, including having schools report to the Immigration and Naturalization Service if foreign students leave and, thus lose their student status.

"For student visas, we ask that schools notify the INS, if someone comes in on a student visa and leaves the school and goes out of status," he said. "So, that information would be recorded and made available to law enforcement, as would (information on) anyone who does not depart at the time the visa says they must."

Terrorism experts also raise concerns about foreign students from countries on the U.S. list of terrorist-sponsoring states and what they study.

The proposed legislation includes more government funding for an automated tracking system to better monitor foreign visitors, including students and scholars.

In fact, foreign students are already tracked more closely than most other non-immigrant visa holders.

Last year, the State Department issued more than 800,000 visas for foreign students or about two percent of a total of seven million non-immigrant visas issued.

Under current law, every school is required to provide the INS with a whole range of details related to the status of foreign students on campus, including when they arrive and leave.

Katherine Cotten directs the International Office of Duke University's Medical Center and Health System. She worries that the fervor of the anti-terrorism campaign may victimize foreign students. "What we're concerned about in this environment is what appears to be an inordinate placing of blame on international students, as if each and every one was some latent terrorist, just waiting for the opportunity to blow up something," she said. "That's not true."

Part of the problem of tracking foreign students is the lack of an automated system.

Duke University was part of a 1994 INS pilot program to automate the tracking system, to make it more effective. Information about the student's identity, visa limitations, course of study and U.S. address were entered into an electronic data base, which was accessible to the INS.

Ms. Cotten says the system, known as SIPRIS, could even flag drop-outs. "In practice, the INS does not have a logical or reasonable way for us to do that reporting, so that information is probably not in the INS system the way it should be," he said. "With the SIPRIS system, if a student fails to arrive, it would default to non-arrival, so if we failed to indicate the student had appeared or enrolled, the system would put it out."

An upgraded version of the automated tracking system now is being expanded to other parts of the country, but the lack of resources has slowed its use nation-wide.

The INS, until now, has relied on student fees to fund the project.

Most educators criticize that aspect of the program as impractical. Michael McCarry is executive director of the Alliance for International Education and Cultural Exchange. He echoes most educators who favor increasing government funds to pay for the program.

"We think, the way to make it effective, and to get it implemented quickly, is to provide federal funds to pay for the system," he said. "So, we take out the whole cumbersome and difficult step of collecting a fee, often from places where there is not reliable mail service or access to foreign currency. If it's federally funded, that will make the system run more effectively."

Mr. McCarry says the visa processing should not make it more difficult for foreign students to enter the United States. He points out that many of today's world leaders, who are joining the U.S. campaign against terrorism, were once foreign students in the United States.