New Procedures for Arriving Students14 May 2013
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has ordered a higher level of scrutiny of F-1 students at the U.S. ports of entry (POEs), according to the Associated Press [Foreign Students to Face New Checks at U.S. Borders, Julia Preston, New York Times, 03.May.2013]. The revised procedures are a reaction to the Boston marathon bombings. As explained here for MurthyDotCom readers, the matter highlights a key weakness in the system used to track individuals entering the United States as students and exchange visitors.
Background: SEVIS Tracks Foreign Students / Exchange Visitors
The computer system used by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for tracking F-1 students is known as the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). SEVIS was implemented after the events of 9/11 as a way to keep tabs on foreign students and exchange visitors. The system collects and stores information regarding each student, including: compliance with status, completion of programs, transfer between schools, and termination of student status. The information in SEVIS on F-1 students comes primarily from the educational institutions eligible to participate in the F-1 program.
CBP has Limited Access to SEVIS at POE
According to news reports, until recently, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at airports and other POEs did not have access to SEVIS data during initial or primary inspection of F-1 students. The SEVIS information could only be accessed by referring students to what is known as secondary inspection for a more in-depth review at the POE. Individuals are generally only sent to secondary inspection if something in the primary inspection process raises questions or otherwise identifies a need to examine a person more closely.
Therefore, it was possible for a former student to travel abroad and gain readmission to the United States in the F-1 student category, even if the individual previously violated a student status and, as a result, was terminated from SEVIS. Unless there was something suspicious to prompt the primary CBP inspection officer to refer the F-1 applicant to secondary inspection, CBP at the POE would never review the individual’s SEVIS record.
Connection to Boston Marathon Bombings
This crack in the system is connected to the Boston bombings in a somewhat indirect manner. The accused bombers were not F-1 students. However, a friend of one of the accused bombers who is alleged to have hidden and/or destroyed evidence was an F-1 student. It is this individual who, it is reported, was allowed to regain admission to the United States shortly after being dismissed from his school for academic reasons.
New Procedures Will Expand CBP Access to SEVIS Database
New procedures are being implemented as of this writing to allow all CBP agents at POEs to have access to SEVIS. The CBP will use information from flight manifests to verify information on F-1 students before they arrive in the United States. If the SEVIS information is unavailable, other steps will be taken to obtain verification. Students should anticipate delays at POEs as a result of these heightened security measures.
In order for SEVIS to be used effectively by the CBP at POEs, the system needs to be made available to officers at all levels. Further, the DHS should continue to monitor and improve the verification system with respect to F-1 students and J-1 exchange visitors. However, the government must strike a balance that prioritizes safety while also allowing for this nation to remain a welcoming destination to foreign national students.
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