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U.S. to tighten border checks on foreign students

A foreign airline passenger is greeted by a Customs and Border Protection Officer at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Ge
A foreign airline passenger is greeted by a Customs and Border Protection Officer at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Ge

By Deborah Charles

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Department of Homeland Security, criticized for failing to check the student status of a Kazakh man charged in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, has tightened procedures for admitting foreigners with student visas, a U.S. official said on Friday.

The Department's Customs and Border Protection issued a memo ordering agents "effective immediately" to check all students against the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System database of international students and schools, according to an official who had seen the memo.

The department is under fire for not properly checking the student status of Azamat Tazhayakov, a friend of one of the bombing suspects, when he entered the country illegally on a student visa in January.

Tazhayakov, who had a student visa that was valid until August 30, 2013, was allowed into the United States on January 20, 2013, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Tazhayakov was one of three 19-year-old men charged this week with interfering with the investigation into last month's bombing by hiding a backpack and fireworks found in the dorm room of bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

The customs officer did not know that Tazhayakov, a classmate of Tsarnaev's, had been dismissed from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, for academic reasons on January 4, according to the department. A student visa is terminated when the student is dismissed from school or fails to enroll.

A U.S. official said the customs officer did not check the SEVIS database - which was updated when Tazhayakov was dismissed from the university - when Tazhayakov arrived in January. As a result, the officer allowed the Kazakh into the United States.

"DHS is reforming the student visa system to ensure that CBP is provided with real time updates on all relevant student visa information," the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement obtained on Friday.

The department was created after the September 11, 2001, hijacked airliner attacks in part to fix problems in the immigration system that allowed the hijackers to enter the United States on student visas and learn to fly airplanes.

Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Thursday demanding answers to questions about the student visas of Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, another Kazakh man who was charged with interfering with the bombing investigation.

Grassley asked if Kadyrbayev was also in violation of his student visa. He said he wanted to know what the government was doing to ensure that individuals with student visas were not violating the requirements of those visas.

Authorities accuse Tsarnaev and his older brother of detonating two bombs at the Boston Marathon on April 15, killing three people and wounding 264.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, was arrested on April 19 after a shootout with police in Watertown, Massachusetts, and charged with crimes that could bring the death penalty if he is convicted. His brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was killed in the shootout.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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