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INS chief blames visa mess on old technology

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service blamed "obsolete technology and overly bureaucratic and illogical processes" Tuesday for why notification of student visa approval for two September 11 hijackers arrived at a Florida flight school last week, exactly six months after the attacks.

INS Commissioner James Ziglar told a House immigration subcommittee he hopes the visa controversy can be used "as a catalyst to accelerate" reforms.

His proposed reforms include eliminating loopholes in immigration rules, upgrading and integrating computer systems and splitting the agency's service and enforcement functions into separate entities.

Lawmakers were doubtful the agency can fix its own problems.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, called the INS "worse than useless."

"How can we believe that future terrorists will be detected in time?" wondered subcommittee chairman Rep. George Gekas, R-Pennsylvania.

"I think that this incident last week simply demonstrates that the INS is in a free fall," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona.

Approval arrives six months after attacks

Mohammed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, identified as the two pilots who crashed planes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, applied to change their visa status from visitor to student a year before the attack.

CNN's Kate Snow reports many U.S. lawmakers want to overhaul the agency that sent out visa-approval letters for two September 11 hijackers (March 20)

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CNN's Susan Candiotti reports on the appearance of INS Commissioner James Ziglar before a U.S. House committee (March 19)

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Bush considers merging INS, Customs 
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Even though the two had already begun taking flying lessons at Huffman Aviation International in Venice, Florida, school President Rudi Dekkers testified he asked them to change their visa status to ensure the school was complying with immigration rules.

The two men were notified last summer their status change had been approved.

But last Monday, six months to the day after the terrorist attacks, Huffman received notification of the status change approvals.

The paperwork sent to the flight school came from an outside company, Affiliated Computer Services, which provides data entry and storage services for the INS.

At Tuesday's hearing, Ziglar and ACS executive Tom Blodgett said the long delay in returning the paperwork was not an anomaly.

After a status change is approved and the student is notified, the "I-20" forms are sent to ACS, which makes a microfilm copy of them and enters data from them into an electronic system, Blodgett said.

Six months later, in compliance with its contract with the INS, ACS returns the paperwork to the student's school.

"ACS did nothing wrong," Ziglar said.

Proposed changes

He admitted, however, the INS should have gone into the paperwork stored at ACS and pulled any applications tied to September 11 hijackers.

That is now being done, and the INS has changed the contract with ACS so that documents will be mailed back to schools in 30 days, rather than six months, he said.

In addition, an electronic system to track student visas, first funded by Congress in 1996, will be fully operational by the end of this year, which will allow schools and students to be notified immediately of visa decisions, Ziglar said.

Dekkers said the case of Atta and Al-Shehhi was unusual because international students usually apply for student visas in their home country.

Ziglar said INS rules allowed Atta and Al-Shehhi to begin flying because at one time the process of switching visa status took as long as a year. It now takes between 30 to 60 days.

He said the INS is considering changing the regulation to require someone to change visa status before enrolling in a school.

Also under consideration:

  • Changing regulations that currently allow people to get into the United States with visitor visas -- which allow them to stay only six months -- and then switch to student visas, which allow a longer stay.
  • Reducing the six-month visitor visa to 30 days, after which international visitors would have to apply for an extension.
  • Subcommittee members questioned Ziglar about a one-week trip Atta took out of the country in January 2001 -- after his visitor visa had expired but before his student visa had been approved. Despite not having a valid visa, Atta was allowed back into the United States.

    Upon Atta's return from Madrid, an immigration inspector subjected Atta to a higher level of scrutiny because of the inconsistencies in his visa paperwork, Ziglar said.

    But notes taken by the inspector show that Atta produced his I-20 application, and the inspector eventually decided to let him back in the country.

    Ziglar said the inspector handles so many cases he does not specifically remember what transpired with Atta -- and that it will probably never be known exactly why the decision was made to let Atta return.




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