The student visa process has come under scrutiny after investigators in the Boston bombings learned that a friend of suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev entered the U.S. with an expired student visa.
Azamat Tazhayakov, a student from Kazakhstan, was arrested on suspicion of obstructing justice after investigators say items were removed from Tsarnaev’s University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth dorm room three days after the attack.
Tazhayakov left the U.S. in December and was allowed to re-enter the country on Jan. 20 even though his visa had been terminated earlier that month when he was dismissed from UMass Dartmouth. The border agent who admitted Tazhayakov at the airport did not have access to the information in the Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).
Homeland Security has since ordered all border agents to verify that every international student who arrives in the country has a valid student visa, according to an internal memo from May 3. And, on May 14, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved an amendment to an immigration bill that will require customs officials at the nation’s 329 ports of entry be immediately notified by DHS when a student visa is terminated.
Michael Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, says it’s rare for international students with expired visas to fall between the cracks.
“It’s a shared responsibility,” says Reilly. “The schools don’t monitor the visas per se, they monitor the status of students.”
It’s then the government’s responsibility to ensure students’ visas are active through its SEVIS system. That database was created in 2002 because one of the 9/11 hijackers had entered the U.S. on a student visa.
“We have almost 800,000 international students in the United States,” he says. The rarity of situations (like Tazhayakov’s) suggests to me the system is working quite well.” Reilly says SEVIS II, a system that could go into effect as early as 2014, “would improve a lot of situations by automating the processes and putting more online.”