Difficult To Track All Student Visas

homeland security
There are more than 500,000 foreigners in the U.S. on student visas and the government acknowledged in a newspaper report it doesn't know where all of them are.

Keeping track of them has become a priority since the Sept. 11 attacks because some of the hijackers were in the U.S. on student visas. The New York Times said in Monday's editions that the computer system designed to monitor foreign students won't be fully operational until next year. Even after the computer system, in the works six years, comes online, the Times reported that there aren't enough agents to check out those who might be of concern.

There are 547,000 people in the U.S. using the student visas, and they spend $12 billion a year here, the newspaper said.

Homeland security has become a major priority for the Bush administration. President Bush late last week said he would ask Congress to spend roughly $11 billion next year on securing the nation's borders to keep out terrorists who would try to attack the United States by air, land or sea.

He promised that U.S. officials will be on special lookout for foreign nationals who have overstayed student visas, "to make sure they're not part of some al-Qaida network that wants to hit the United States."

"We're looking, we're listening, we're following every single lead," he said.

The president visited Portland last Friday to announce plans to seek $10.7 billion in next year's budget for border security, an increase of $2.1 billion over this year.

Portland is where two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari, stayed overnight before flying to Boston and catching American Airlines Flight 11 — the jetliner they flew into the World Trade Center. Mr. Bush did not mention them in his speech.

The border security funds are part of a $38 billion homeland security package that Mr. Bush announced Thursday. The money will be used to create "a seamless air, land and sea border" that weeds out terrorist threats without clogging the free flow of goods and people between countries, the White House said.

Mr. Bush also will seek a $1.2 billion increase for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, so more agents and inspectors can be hired to focus on the border with Canada. Work on tightening that border already is under way; Bush's homeland security director Tom Ridge reached an agreement in December with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley.

The INS also will able to launch a tracking system to monitor arrivals and departures by non-U.S. citizens.

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The Coast Guard stands to receive $2.9 billion under the president's propsal for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, an increase of $282 million. Ridge's office said the figure was in line with what the Coast Guard requested, based on its own cost estimates.

The funds would go mainly toward port security missions, a function that once was a small portion of Coast Guard operations but now makes up nearly 60 percent of its daily duties. The guard currently is on a heightened state of alert, and must cover 361 ports and 95,000 miles of coastline.

The Tahoma, based at New Bedford, Mass., is at sea roughly 185 days a year, interdicting drug traffic and illegal migrants from the North Atlantic to the Caribbean. It was commissioned in April 1988 and has a crew of 100 officers and enlisted personnel.

The president's budget plan also includes:

  • An increase of $619 million for the U.S. Customs Service, so it can finish hiring 800 new inspectors and agents for border and seaport duties and purchase high-tech equipment to speed inspections of shipments.
  • A $14 million increase for the Agriculture Quarantine Inspection program, to help with inspections at land border crossings and on flights into the U.S. mainland from far-flung states and territories, such as Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

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