Following Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbaev arrest in the Boston Marathon bombings for obstructing justice, the Homeland Security Department ordered border agents “effective immediately” to verify that every international student who arrives in the U.S. has a valid student visa.
Azamat Tazhayakov, one of the three college students who were arrested on Wednesday, was able to get into the U.S. illegally on expired student visas, prompting the government’s first formal security change directly related to the April 15 attack.
The student visa for Azamat Tazhayakov had been terminated when he arrived in New York on January 20 but the border agent in the airport did not have access to the information about it in the Homeland Security Department’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, called SEVIS.
Kazakh Azamat Tazhayakov, 19, was a friend and classmate of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
He left the U.S. in December and returned January 20, but earlier that month his student-visa status was terminated because he was academically dismissed from the university.
Azamat Tazhayakov and a second Kazakh student were arrested this week on federal charges of obstruction of justice. They were accused of helping to get rid of a backpack containing fireworks linked to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. A third student, American citizen Robel Phillipos, was also arrested and accused of lying to authorities.
Dias Kadyrbaev, 19, called his dad and described their arrest as something out of a Hollywood blockbuster.
“He told me on the phone: <<Dad, we have been arrested just like in an American movie. They came over in armored vehicles with a platoon of officers, with guns and laser lights. They undressed us. It started snowing. But we were standing like that until the search of our apartment ended. I am home now, we have been released, everything is all right, don’t worry Dad>>,” the father Murat Kadyrbaev told a Russian television station.
A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, Peter Boogaard, said earlier this week that the government was working to fix the problem, which allowed Azamat Tazhayakov to be admitted into the country when he returned to the U.S.
Under existing procedures, border agents could verify a student’s status in SEVIS only when the person was referred to a second officer for additional inspection or questioning.
Azamat Tazhayakov was not sent to a second officer when he arrived. Under the new procedures, all border agents were expected to be able to access SEVIS by next week.
The U.S. government for years has recognized as a problem the inability of border agents at primary inspection stations to directly review student-visa information.
The Homeland Security Department was working before the Boston bombings to resolve the problem, but the new memo outlined interim procedures until the situation was corrected.
Under the new procedures, border agents will verify a student’s visa status before the person arrives in the U.S. using information provided in flight manifests.
If that information is unavailable, border agents will check the visa status manually with the agency’s national targeting data center.
The Obama administration announced an internal review earlier this week of how U.S. intelligence agencies shared sensitive information before the bombings and whether the government could have prevented the attack.
Republicans in Congress have promised oversight hearings, which begin Thursday next week.
Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Thursday for details from the student visa applications of Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, including information about how Tazhayakov re-entered the United States.
Lawmakers and others have long been concerned about terrorists exploiting the student visa system to travel to the U.S.
A 20-year-old college student from Saudi Arabia was arrested in Texas in 2011 on federal charges of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.
Authorities accused him of plotting to blow up dams, nuclear plants or the Dallas home of former President George W. Bush. He was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison.