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INS Sharply Cuts Length of Tourist, Student Visa Stays

Policy: In response to the terrorist attacks, many passes would be limited to 30 days.

April 09, 2002|JONATHAN PETERSON and PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The Immigration and Naturalization Service, seeking to close gaps exploited by the Sept. 11 hijackers, said Monday it will sharply reduce the length of time many foreign students and millions of other travelers may spend in the United States.

INS Commissioner James W. Ziglar said his agency was seeking "the appropriate balance" between enforcing the law and welcoming legitimate visitors. "While we recognize the overwhelming majority who come to us as visitors are honest and law-abiding," he said, "the events of Sept. 11 remind us there will always be those who seek to cause us harm."

Immigration officials said many tourist visas would be slashed from the current six months to 30 days or less, based on what INS inspectors say is "fair and reasonable."

In addition, the INS would immediately prohibit foreign visitors from enrolling in U.S. schools unless they had obtained student visas. Until now, foreign students have been allowed to begin classes in America if their student visa applications were pending.

The flurry of INS actions follows embarrassing revelations that the agency had notified a Florida flight school that visas were in order for two of its students--six months after they had hijacked two jetliners and piloted them into the World Trade Center.

That gaffe sparked a public rebuke from President Bush and renewed calls to overhaul the immigration service.

INS officials plan to seek public comment on the revisions immediately, and they expect the new rules affecting nonstudents to take effect this summer. No congressional action is necessary.

Under the revisions, the INS would:

* Require foreign travelers on U.S. visas to explain why they needed a specified amount of time inside the United States. Immigration inspectors would be directed to grant tourists 30 days if it was unclear how much time they actually needed to accomplish the aims of their trip. The INS also plans to reduce the maximum stay for travelers on business visas to six months from the current 12 months.

* Grant extensions "for unexpected or compelling humanitarian reasons," such as medical treatment, but limit them to six months rather than the current 12 months.

* Demand that foreigners who intend to enroll in U.S. schools make such plans known before entering this country with some other visa status. Foreign visitors with nonstudent status would still be allowed to apply for student status inside the United States, but only if they declared that intention when they first applied to enter this country. The INS said it would attempt to process requests to change visa status in 30 days.

It was not immediately clear how many people would be affected by the new rules. About 75% of foreign visitors depart within 30 days, immigration officials said. The INS also pledged flexibility for cases that did not involve national security, such as foreign retirees who own vacation homes inside the United States.

The administration plan targets the complex visa system for a specific reason--all 19 hijackers are believed to have entered the country on legal visas approved at U.S. consulates in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. However, the great majority of foreign visitors come from Canada, western European nations and other countries whose citizens may enter without visas.

In fact, Zacarias Moussaoui, the only suspect charged in the United States in connection with the Sept. 11 hijackings, had a French passport and did not need a visa when he entered the United States.

And as many as 300,000 illegal immigrants are believed to enter the United States annually through the nation's porous land borders, mostly via Mexico.

"It's a targeted response, rather than a heavy-handed response," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration group. "At least they're dealing with the issues related to the terrorist attacks of 9/11."

But foreign student advocates were wary. Two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta of Egypt and Marwan Al-Shehhi of the United Arab Emirates, came to the United States on visitor visas. They enrolled in a Florida flight school in July 2000, more than a year before the INS approved their student visas. Such enrollments would be prohibited under the new rules.

Another hijacker, Hani Hanjour, who helped crash another hijacked jet into the Pentagon, had a student visa for a Bay Area English-language school but never showed up for classes.

Victor Johnson, public policy director at NAFSA, an association of international educators, maintained that the nation's 550,000 foreign students represented just 2% of temporary visa holders and that the majority had gotten approval to study in the United States before enrolling in school.

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