The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has tightened its screening of international students by ordering border agents to verify the visa validity of F-1 and M-1 foreign students entering the United States. The new procedures may also be expanded to include J-1 exchange visitors. This directive was issued after it came to light that a Kazakh student, charged with obstruction of justice for helping to dispose of evidence for one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, had been permitted to reenter the United States on an expired F-1 student visa. Although his status as an international student had been terminated weeks earlier and the revocation recorded in an electronic student visa database, known as the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), the border agent did not have access to that information.
DHS has stated that it is taking steps to reform the student visa system to ensure that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is now provided with “real time updates on all relevant student visa information.” Under the new procedures, CBP officers are required to verify the visa status of each foreign student in SEVIS before he or she arrives in the United States using information provided in flight manifests through the Advanced Passenger Information System (APIS)—part of the TECS system.
However, until the SEVIS and TECS systems are integrated so that flight manifest information can be automatically cross-checked against the SEVIS records, CBP officers will not have immediate access to the SEVIS data in primary inspection. While a student visa may appear to be valid during preliminary processing, the student’s status can only be verified in the SEVIS system when the foreign national is referred to secondary inspection where his or her visa status may be manually checked against SEVIS records.
The time required to integrate these systems and equip all border officers with SEVIS access in order to streamline foreign student admissions procedures is still unknown. Therefore, students and exchange visitors should be prepared for potentially long waits and additional questioning at U.S. ports of entry. Students reentering the country to reinstate their SEVIS records after prior termination should expect additional scrutiny and be armed with detailed information and evidence as to why their initial SEVIS records were terminated.
Ogletree Deakins is monitoring developments with respect to DHS’ scrutiny of international students and will provide updates as more information becomes available.