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ICYMI: Gus Bilirakis: Student visas and the domestic terror threat

October 1, 2014
Press Release

Gus Bilirakis: Student visas and the domestic terror threat

Across the United States, nearly 58,000 foreign students have outstayed their student visas in just the past year alone. Of those 58,000, over 6,000 are now unaccounted for by the Department of Homeland Security.

These gaps in the student visa system pose serious security threats to the United States and exploit the laws that allow for legitimate academic and cultural visitors, which I support.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has fighters in its ranks with American passports, many of whom are college-aged. It should be alarming to know that individuals with access to student visas who have ties to terrorist groups like ISIL can enter the country legally.

The threat is real. Some of the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks and the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center entered the country through the student visa program. Reports have indicated that since the attacks on 9/11, 26 student visa holders have been arrested on terror-related charges.

Young Americans, albeit a very small minority, are susceptible to the radicalization ISIL espouses. ISIL has proven particularly adept at using social media to influence Western youths to join its cause. A 19-year-old from Colorado recently tried to join the group. Two Austrian girls, ages 15 and 16, have successfully joined ISIL. A British man purportedly executed American journalist James Foley and others. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility to believe that ISIL members could come to the United States intent on radicalizing Americans, or perpetrating acts of terror, all while on student visas.

This issue hits home for residents of the Tampa Bay area. In 2007, two foreign students were arrested with several pipe bombs and explosive-making materials in the trunk of their car in South Carolina. At the time, the two Egyptian nationals were attending the University of South Florida on student visas.

ISIL represents a sophisticated and complex threat. The strategy to deal with them will undoubtedly be just as sophisticated and complex. There may be disagreement on how to best deal with ISIL. However, there is little disagreement that ISIL represents a serious threat to the United States and her citizens.

The student visa system is a gaping hole, and it must be addressed. That is why I have introduced the Student Visa Security Improvement Act every Congress since 2007. This important measure would ensure foreign students and exchange visitors enter the country for legitimate purposes. It would provide additional scrutiny for applicants, and put mechanisms into place to ensure students are attending classes in which they are enrolled.

Congress must act with haste to strengthen student visa security and bring proper oversight to the Student Exchange Visitor Program. 9/11 proved the security flaws in the student visa program, and ISIL cannot be allowed to exploit them. It is time for Congress to act.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, represents the 12th District, which includes all of Pasco and parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.


To read the op-ed online, click here.