Foreign Students and Exchange Visitors Face Closer Scrutiny, Delays at U.S. Ports of Entry

Effective immediately, the Department of Homeland Security has ordered its border agents to verify that every international F-1 and M-1 student and J-1 exchange visitor who arrives to the United States holds a valid visa. The internal memorandum obtained Friday by the Associated Press, is the government’s new procedure and first security change directly related to the bombings at the Boston Marathon.

David J. Murphy, a senior official with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, circulated the order on Thursday, one day after the Obama Administration acknowledged that a student from Kazakhstan accused of hiding evidence for one of the Boston bombing suspects was allowed to return to the United States in January, without a valid visa.

F-1 and M-1 foreign students and J-1 exchange visitors are facing additional questioning and entry delays at U.S. ports, after this change in Customs and Border Protection procedures following the April 15 bombings in Boston.

CBP officers must now verify the status of each F-1, M-1 and J-1 nonimmigrant in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) before admission. Not all border officers are equipped with access to SEVIS, however, so after preliminary processing, most students and exchange visitors are referred to secondary inspection, where their SEVIS record is reviewed and where they may be questioned further about their U.S. activities.

There are reports that CBP may use airline manifests to verify SEVIS records in advance of a foreign national’s travel to the United States, but it is not yet known whether or to what extent this practice is in use.

F-1 students and J-1 exchange visitors should be prepared for the new entry procedures and for the possibility of long waits at U.S. ports of entry. They should be patient and answer all questions clearly and fully.

CBP plans to equip all border officers with SEVIS access in order to streamline F-1 and J-1 admissions, but it is not yet known when this will occur. Entry delays are likely to continue until SEVIS access is more widely available to border inspectors.