Tracking Student Visas Flawed

ByABC News
October 10, 2001, 4:52 PM

W A S H I N G T O N, Oct. 10 -- For suspected terrorist Hani Hanjour, entering the United States was as easy as applying for a student visa to study English at a Berlitz course taught on the campus of Holy Names College in Oakland, Calif.

But Hanjour never showed up for class and until he was listed as one of the Sept. 11 suicide pilots, the federal government had no idea he was roaming freely throughout the United States.

The Sept. 11 attacks have raised concerns about America's student visa program, exposing weaknesses and loopholes in the system.

"Getting a student visa is a way to get your foot in the door of the United States for whatever purposes you might have, if you want to be a terrorist or if you want to immigrate to the United States," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank that seeks greater restrictions on immigration.

Flawed System

"We've got a deeply flawed system and we've got no accountability," said Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif. "You can have a lot of these students not showing up at the university and no one would know that."

That's because there is no centralized tracking system with even basic information for the half-million foreigners who enter the United States on student visas each year. Lawmakers such as Feinstein are proposing changes to close loopholes in the system.

Proposed Changes in System

First, they want stricter background checks before visas are granted. Visa officers often spend only two or three minutes reviewing an applicant's eligibility to enter the United States, checking their name against watch lists that are often incomplete or out of date.

"It is almost guaranteed that bad guys are going to get through," Krikorian said. "It is probably most important to deny visas in the first place to people who then might become a problem. Once we let somebody in it is just much harder to deal with them than simply keeping them out in the first place."