Amid Security Worries, Student Visas Come Under New Scrutiny

Azamat Tazhayakov (left), from Kazakhstan, is accused of obstructing the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings. He is shown with the surviving bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (right), and another friend, Dias Kadyrbayev. Mr. Tazhayakov's ability to re-enter the country after the U. of Massachusetts at Dartmouth terminated his student visa has been a focal point for critics of the student-visa system.
May 09, 2013

Since the Boston Marathon bombings three weeks ago, the U.S. government has enacted just one significant security change: It has ordered increased scrutiny of international students coming into the country.

The policy directive, by the Department of Homeland Security, was prompted by news that a Kazakh student who is accused of hiding evidence for one of the bombing suspects had been permitted to enter the United States on a student visa that was no longer valid. The University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth had apparently terminated Azamat Tazhayakov's status as an international student weeks earlier, but a border agent at the airport did not have access to that information, even though it had been filed in a federal-government database.

While colleges applaud the steps to improve the sharing of information—and say they should have been made years ago—some educators wonder if subjecting every foreign student to additional border screening, which can take up to several hours, is an overreaction. But more than that, they worry that the student-visa system could be scapegoated, as government officials seek to ensure a rattled public that they're taking national security seriously.

Although neither of the bombing suspects, the brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was in the United States on a student visa, a number of politicians and pundits have called for taking a hard look at the system, and some have even proposed suspending visas to students from countries or regions deemed a high risk.

"You don't have a right to a student visa," said Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who has taken a high-profile role in the immigration debate. "Therefore we can place whatever restrictions we want on student visas."

With debate on immigration legislation beginning this week in the Senate Judiciary Committee, there's the possibility that language could be added to the measure to restrict student visas or impose new requirements. Already, the committee's top Republican, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, has proposed linking the bill's enactment to an investigation into the Boston bombings, and specifically into any failures in the monitoring of students.

Could student visas become a pawn in a highly polarized debate? "People who are opposed to immigration reform will do whatever it takes to link Boston to it," says Victor C. Johnson, senior adviser for public policy at Nafsa: Association of International Educators, which supports changes in immigration policy.

For many in the field, there's a sense of "here we go again." After all, the current student-visa system was put in place in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, partly on the mistaken belief that the hijackers had entered the country on student visas. (Just one of the 19 had; the others were on business or tourist visas.) Some of the system's flaws, educators believe, are a direct result of its hasty creation.

"It's a little bit of déjà vu," says Fanta Aw, director of international student and scholar services at American University, in Washington, D.C.

Screening Problems

While much news-media attention in the Boston case has focused on why Mr. Tazhayakov, who has not been implicated in the bombing plot itself, was allowed to re-enter the United States in late January, more than two weeks after the university terminated his status, it doesn't come as a surprise to many college administrators who deal with student visas.

They say it's the result of a persistent, if not routine, problem: Front-line customs officers don't have real-time access to the electronic student-visa database—the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System—even though both are part of the Homeland Security Department. A student's status can be checked in the system, known as Sevis, only if the student is referred to a second border agent for additional questioning. Meanwhile, the student's visa, the actual document pasted in a passport, can appear to still be valid.

While it's not commonplace, universities do occasionally see students re-enter after their visas have been terminated. "It's been a source of contention," says Amy Daly Gardner, director of the Office of Intercultural Affairs at Clark University, in Worcester, Mass. "A couple of times, former students have shown up on campus, and I'd say, 'Whoa, how'd you get in?'"

It's not for lack of information from colleges, Ms. Daly Gardner and other international officers say. Since the birth of Sevis, colleges have been responsible for maintaining extensive international-student records. They must update the database when students move, get a new phone number, or change majors. Each semester or term, administrators must confirm to the federal government that every foreign student is enrolled and in good academic standing, and many monitor their students' academic progress more often. In Ms. Daly Gardner's four-person office, one staff member's full-time job is to keep Clark's records current in Sevis.

A Convenient Target

Holders of student and scholar visas make up just 4 percent of all those admitted to the United States each year on nonimmigrant visas. There's no comparable system for tracking international visitors on business or tourist visas. "The irony," says Ronald B. Cushing, director of international services at the University of Cincinnati, "is no other visa class out there is scrutinized like student visas are."

He worries that lawmakers could embrace broad-brush fixes when there's no sign the system itself is broken: "One kid was let in with terminated status and suddenly we turn the student-visa system upside down?"

Indeed, the very fact that there is a student-visa system may cause lawmakers to zero in on it, Mr. Cushing says, as there's an infrastructure in place that can be altered.

Foreign students may also make a convenient target, politically and rhetorically. After all, they don't vote.

And some of the concern may be fueled by misinformation or misunderstandings. For one, some commentators have questioned why colleges haven't done more to "crack down" on foreign students who might be in violation, when the colleges' role is administrative, not law enforcement. "We don't have the authority to pick students up and take them to the airport," says David G. Arredondo, director of international-student services at Lorain County Community College, in Ohio.

But perceptions also matter overseas, and educators worry about how the stepped-up screening of international students may play abroad. Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, said this week that she hoped to have a permanent technological fix in place by the end of the month to give all border agents access to the electronic-visa database. For now, however, customs officials must check each student visa's status "manually," a process that is reportedly causing foreign students to wait in lines several hours long at some airports.

Ms. Aw, at American University, says she worries more that safety concerns related to the Boston bombings could discourage students from studying in the United States. She also says the visa scrutiny could hamper overseas enrollment, which American colleges have stepped up in recent years. "It illustrates the schizophrenic nature of what's going on," she says. "We say we want you. and then we make it difficult for you to come here."

Still, as the Senate takes up immigration legislation, Mr. Johnson, of Nafsa, says he remains hopeful that the student-visa system will not get pulled into the fray. "The rhetoric so far is pretty tame compared to 9/11," he says.