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The Immigration and Naturalization Service's Contacts With Two September 11 Terrorists: A Review of the INS's Admissions of Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi, its Processing of their Change of Status Applications, and its Efforts to Track Foreign Students in the United States

May 20, 2002
Office of the Inspector General


The INS suffered a firestorm of criticism when it was disclosed that six months after the September 11 terrorist attacks Huffman Aviation received forms notifying it that terrorists Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi had received approval to change their status to that of students. Although the forms were only a notification of a decision that had been made several months before September 11, the mailing of these forms raised troubling questions about the INS's handling of Atta's and Alshehhi's change of status applications. More importantly, it raised serious concerns about the INS's ability to monitor and track foreign students in the United States.

The OIG therefore expended significant resources to review the circumstances surrounding the sending of the forms to Huffman Aviation, including the source of the delay and the failure to stop delivery of the forms after September 11. We also examined the INS's admissions of Atta and Alshehhi into the United States, and we expedited our broader review of the INS's tracking and monitoring of foreign students who come to the United States, including SEVIS, the INS's new computerized student tracking system.

With regard to all but one of Atta's and Alshehhi's entries into the United States, we concluded that the evidence does not show that the inspectors who admitted them acted in violation of INS policies and practices. We were unable to reach any definitive conclusion whether Atta's admission in January 2001 was improper, given the limited record relating to the admission and the inspector's inability to remember the specifics of what was said at the time. We found that before September 11, the INS did not closely scrutinize aliens entering the country to become students and did not uniformly require foreign students to present the required documentation before entering the United States.

Our review of the INS's processing of Atta's and Alshehhi's change of status applications revealed significant problems. First, the INS did not handle their applications in a timely way, taking more than 10 months before adjudicating the applications. As a result, Atta's and Alshehhi's applications were not adjudicated until well after they had finished their flight training course. Second, the INS adjudicator who approved their applications did so without adequate information, including the fact that Atta and Alshehhi had left the country two times after filing their change of status applications, which meant they had abandoned the applications. Even after approval of the applications, Huffman Aviation was not notified for seven months because the INS allowed an INS contractor to wait 180 days before mailing notification forms to schools. We found that the INS failed to adequately supervise the contract and was inattentive to the contract's requirements.

We are critical of the INS's failure to alert the FBI to the existence of Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20 forms after the September 11 attacks. Although the INS quickly determined on September 11 that it had already approved Atta's and Alshehhi's change of status applications and it gathered the change of status files for the FBI, no one in the INS located - or even considered - the notification forms that were being processed by the INS contractor. As a result, the forms continued to be processed and were later routinely mailed to Huffman Aviation. In our judgment, this was a widespread failure by many individuals in the INS.

Atta's and Alshehhi's case also highlights important weaknesses in the INS's handling of foreign students. Historically, the INS has devoted insufficient attention to foreign students, and its current, paper-based tracking system is inefficient, inaccurate, and unreliable. SEVIS, the new Internet-based system the INS is developing, has the potential to dramatically improve the INS's monitoring of foreign students. But we found that it will not solve all the problems in the INS's monitoring system.

Unless the INS devotes sufficient resources and effort to effectively implement and use the SEVIS system, many problems will continue to exist. Among other things, the INS must ensure that it fully reviews the schools certified to enroll foreign students, make certain that accurate and timely information is entered into SEVIS, provide and enforce clear guidance for INS officers and schools about their responsibilities and the procedures related to foreign students, require that school officials and INS employees are trained properly on these requirements and procedures, and ensure that information in SEVIS about schools and students is effectively used by the INS to detect and deter abuse.

In this report, we offer 24 recommendations to help address the problems that Atta's and Alshehhi's cases highlighted and that our review of the INS foreign student program revealed. We believe that these recommendations will improve the usefulness of SEVIS and help address the serious deficiencies we found in this review. While many of these recommended changes will require additional resources, we believe these efforts are necessary for the INS to improve its handling and monitoring of foreign students.

Glenn A. Fine
Inspector General