BILIRAKIS: Closing the loophole on student visas

Lax screening makes it the entry method of choice for terrorists

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On Feb. 23, the FBI arrested Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, a 20-year-old Saudi national studying in the United States on a student visa, for plotting terrorist attacks against soldiers, critical infrastructure and former President George W. Bush.

The Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, reportedly first entered the United States on a student visa.

Several Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists overstayed their student visas.

Unfortunately, these are just a few of the high-profile examples of abuses in our student visa program. We have nearly 800,000 students in the country who are participating in the Student and Exchange Visitor Program.

Most foreign students come here with noble intentions, and while not all terrorists have come to the United States under the guise of a student visa, many do.

Those who seek to do our nation harm have found a loophole in our security, and we must work actively to address shortcomings in the system to avoid future exploitation of the program.

This is why I have introduced the Student Visa Security Improvement Act (H.R. 1211), which will improve the background checks conducted on student visa applicants from high-risk areas and enhance America’s ability to ensure that foreign students are abiding by the terms of their visas once in the United States.

There is no question that foreign students and exchange visitors who enter our country for legitimate academic and cultural pursuits make valuable contributions to our society, but it has become clear that we don’t have a proper screening system to adequately vet students before they’re admitted to study in this country.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at visa stations overseas should have to review all student visa applications and conduct in-person interviews when deemed necessary before a student is granted a visa.

In addition to enhanced screening oversees, my bill calls for more vigilant monitoring of foreign students once they are in the country by ensuring they are active participants in the programs in which they are enrolled and are, in fact, working toward an education.

It would require academic institutions to report foreign students who quit attending classes. The Department of Homeland Security also would be granted the authority to decertify a school’s visa program if it is caught defrauding the student visa process.

This has been an ongoing concern for me.

In 2007, I first introduced a bill to strengthen the student visa process. That year, a University of South Florida student was arrested for carrying explosives and charged with trying to help terrorists. The student, Ahmed Mohamed, was in the country with a non-immigrant student visa. In 2008, he was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison.

The 9/11 commission wrote in its final report that “had the immigration system set a higher bar for determining whether individuals are who or what they claim to be … it could have potentially excluded, removed, or come into contact with several hijackers who did not appear to meet the terms for admitting short-term visitors.”

Clearly, the existing guidelines for issuing and tracking those with visas need improvement.

Providing the opportunity for foreign students to learn in the United States is important, but protecting the safety of our nation should be our top priority.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Florida Republican, is a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

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