October 16, 2021

The federal government has lost contact with more than 6,000 expired student visa holders who could be a threat to national security

  • ‘Some of them could be here to do us harm,’ an ICE official said
  • The Department of Homeland Security has lost track of 58,000 foreigners on student visas but only 6,000 of them are subjects of ‘heightened concern’
  • As of last year, the government had lost touch with more than a million total visa holders

The federal government has let more than 6,000 foreigners on student visas who represent a national security threat slip through the cracks, according to a news report released Tuesday.

The Department of Homeland Security lost contact with the foreigners, who ABC News says are of ‘heightened concern,’ after they overstayed their visas and has been unable to reestablish contact.

‘My greatest concern is that they could be doing anything,’ Peter Edge, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official, told ABC News. ‘Some of them could be here to do us harm.’

The Department of Homeland Security has lost track of roughly 58,000 foreigners here on expired student visas. More than 6,000 of them are considered high-risk for terrorism related activities
The Department of Homeland Security has lost track of roughly 58,000 foreigners here on expired student visas. More than 6,000 of them are considered high-risk for terrorism related activities

The Department of Homeland Security has lost track of roughly 58,000 foreigners here on expired student visas. More than 6,000 of them are considered high-risk for terrorism related activities

While only 6,000 of the expired visa holders are considered subjects of interest, DHS says it has lost track of a total of 58,000 foreigners who entered the U.S. on student visas but appear not to have left.

‘They just disappear,’ Sen. Tom Coburn, a leading advocate of student visa reform told ABC News. ‘They get the visas and they disappear.’

Tracking down foreigners who have overstayed their student visas has become an issue of increased concern after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virgina.

One of the hijackers of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, Hani Hanjour, entered the U.S. on a student visa.

At a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing in 2011, Sen. Rand Paul re-raised the concern that foreign students could be a threat to the U.S.

‘We have 40,000 students coming to this country from all over the world,’ he said. ‘Are they would-be attackers?’

The Kentucky Senator’s concerns were validated after a student from Kazakhstan on an expired visa, Azamat Tazhayakov, was arrested and charged for hiding the backpack of a Boston bombing suspect from police.

Paul has been a vocal advocate of changes to the student visa system ever since. The Kentucky Senator refused to vote in favor of immigration reform in 2013 because the Obama-backed Gang of Eight legislation did not place new restrictions on the student visa program.

‘If we had a more competent visa program, we might have prevented 9/11,’ he said in an op-ed for Politico explaining his opposition to the comprehensive immigration reform bill.

‘If we had more thorough screening of refugees, we might have prevented the Boston bombing,’ he continued.

Tazhayakov was convicted in July of obstructing a terrorism investigation for hiding evidence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has been accused on perpetrating the bombing. Tsarnaev will face trial in November.

Sen. Coburn told ABC News that since the September 11 attacks the government had arrested 26 foreigners with student visas for terrorism related activities.

Coburn and Sens. Chuck Grassley and Charles Schumer have tried in the past to change student visa laws with no success.

Thomas Kean, a co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, which first recommended changes to the student visa program, told ABC he was amazed that the government still hadn’t adopted the commission’s recommended changes to the program.

‘It’s been pointed out over and over and over again and the fact that nothing has been done about it yet… it’s a very dangerous thing for all of us,’ Kean said. ‘The fact that there’s been no action on this is very bothersome.’

Kean pointed out that the man who attacked the World Trade Center in 1993, years before September 11, was also a student visa holder who skipped out on school.

ABC News said it discovered in its investigation that more than a million foreigners currently hold student visas from across 9,000 schools, making it difficult for the government to keep track of every visa holder.

Students can enter the U.S. now to study almost any trade on a visa, including hairbraiding and massage therapy, ABC found.

Many of the for-profit programs that provide such courses abusing the visa system, Coburn said, which is another reason why reforms are necessary.

‘We know we have a lot of non-accredited universities that are using this system to bring people in, collect money, and not educate them at all,’ he said. ‘To me, it’s a mess.’

Janice Kephart, a counselor to the 9/11 Commission, told ABC the government was creating an opening for terrorists to take advantage of the lax oversight of student visa programs by accrediting suspect schools.

‘When schools are not legitimate that enables terrorists to come here under a fraudulent basis and disappear into the fabric of society without anybody knowing that they are here for illegitimate reason because the system itself will say they’re here legitimately when in fact they’re not,’ she said.

Edge, the ICE official who handles student visa investigations, admitted to ABC that ‘we really have a lot more work to do’ to make sure that the government is keeping student visa holders in check.

Government oversight reports show that it’s not just expired student visas that the government has been sloppy at regulating.

As of June 2013, DHS had a backlog of 1 million cases in which a foreigner had potentially overstayed any type of visa, a Government Accountability Office report filed in July of last year revealed.

GAO was asked to access DHS’ management of the visa system after it received a series of complaints from lawmakers in 2011  It originally found that Homeland Security had 1.6 million cases open, including thousands of students.

That number had whittled down to just north of 1 million by the time it reaccessed the issue two years later.

In it’s 2013 report GAO cited persisting concerns that DHS was still losing too many foreign nationals, however, and strongly encouraged the government agency to provide stricter oversight of visa holders.