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Senate to take look at student visas

Oct. 19, 2001 at 3:18 PM   |   Comments

FORT WORTH, Texas, Oct. 19 (UPI) -- The Senate next week will take a look at whether student visas should be issued to people from nations designated by the State Department as terrorist-supporting states, a spokesman for Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., said Friday.

The discussion will come only days after 14 Syrian men legally entered the United States through Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to attend a flight school at Fort Worth, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Syria is one of seven nations considered terrorist-supporting states by the U.S. State Department.

The Syrians, who entered the United States on M-1 visas for vocational education, were checked out by the State Department and were not on any "watch lists," according to the INS. Their entry Sunday and Monday was completely legal, the INS said.

Although four of the 19 suicide hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had reportedly attended U.S. flight schools, none of the rules used to screen foreign applicants for U.S. flight schools have been changed.

Talks, however, have been under way in Congress.

In late September, Feinstein proposed a temporary 6-month moratorium on the student visa program to give the INS and educational institutions time to sort out problems with the student visa applications and tracking foreign students once they enter the United States. She later withdrew the proposal when the parties agreed to work on the problems voluntarily.

Next week, Feinstein will propose legislation to fund an electronic database to track foreign students, including requirements that they designate a specific school and that the school notify the INS if the student doesn't show up, according to spokesman Howard Gantman.

"One of the issues we are exploring and will finalize in legislation probably next week is the issue of whether or not to grant student visas to people who come from states that are designated at terrorist-supporting states," he said in a phone interview.

A State Department official said there is currently no prohibition against issuing visas to flight-school students from the Middle East as long as they meet all visa requirements.

One of the suicide pilots of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, had enrolled at an Oakland, Calif., college in November 2000 but never showed up. Investigators are also examining whether three of the hijackers attended a San Diego community college.

Officials estimate that 245,000 foreign students have entered the United States this year to pursue studies. Between 1999 and 2000, the State Department issued 3,370 visas to students from nations on the department's terrorism watch list.

In 1996, Congress enacted a law to require the INS to electronically collect data on all foreign students by 2003, but the system has not been set up. Without this data, the INS cannot share information with the State Department, which issues the visas, or any other agency.

On Oct. 11, the Justice Department said that 13 of the 19 hijackers had entered the United States legally with valid visas. Of the 13, three of the hijackers had remained in the United States after their visas had expired. The INS had no information on six of the hijackers.

© 2001 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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