The heightened scrutiny by U.S. Customs and Border Protection is effective immediately, sources with knowledge of the issue said Friday. Officials would not discuss what they called operational details. But the move is designed to give border agents better and faster access to computerized databases that track the status of student visas.
The measures come amid continuing investigation into the April 15 bombings that killed three and injured more than 260, and on the day that the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the suspected bombers, was sent to a private funeral home in preparation for Muslim rites.
Tsarnaev died after a gun battle during the fierce manhunt that forced a lockdown of the Boston metropolitan area. His younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is facing federal charges of using a weapon of mass destruction. Three of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s friends are facing federal charges on allegations of trying to hide evidence after the explosions.
One of the friends, Azamat Tazhayakov, 19, was allowed to reenter the U.S. on a student visa even though he was no longer attending the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev also studied.
Congressional Republicans have questioned how the government has dealt with visa security issues. In a three-page letter this week, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for details about student visas and how Tazhayakov was able to reenter the U.S.
In a statement this week, the Homeland Security Department said that Tazhayakov entered the United States on Jan. 20 using a student visa with an expiration date of Aug. 30. Customs, which is part of Homeland Security, had not been notified that Tazhayakov had left school on Jan. 4, so he was permitted entry.
The Homeland Security Department “is reforming the student visa system to ensure that [Customs and Border Protection] is provided with real-time updates on all relevant student visa information,” the agency said. “At the time of reentry there was no derogatory information that suggested this individual posed a national security or public safety threat.”
The new security effort was first reported by the Associated Press, which cited a memorandum it had obtained from a senior customs official, David J. Murphy. According to the news service, all border agents will have broader access to Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. Agents will also be able to check on passengers before they arrive in the United States by running names from the manifests through the database.
Tazhayakov and his roommate, Dias Kadyrbayev, both of Kazakhstan, are charged with obstruction of justice on suspicion of disposing of Tsarnaev’s backpack, which contained fireworks. A third friend, Robel Phillipos of Cambridge, Mass., has been charged with lying to authorities. None of the three is accused of being directly involved in the bombing.
The trio’s relationship to the younger Tsarnaev brother is being closely probed by investigators. On Friday, authorities searched an area at the Dartmouth campus for hours, refusing to discuss what, if anything, was found.
The only official comment came earlier in the day in a message sent on Twitter: “Pls be advised. Searches in Dartmouth MA today are part of ongoing investigation into Marathon bombing. There is no threat to public safety.”
The body of suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, has been sent to Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors in Worcester, Mass. Peter Stefan, owner of the funeral home, confirmed Friday that he would handle the arrangements for the funeral.
“We take care of a lot of Muslim funerals here, throughout the state,” Stefan said, “and this was no different, except for the circumstances.”
Stefan said he was preparing for possible demonstrations but said everybody deserves a dignified burial service. State officials released the body to family on Thursday, and the remains were initially taken to Dyer-Lake Funeral Home in North Attleborough. About 20 protesters gathered there before the body was moved.
The state medical examiner’s office determined the cause of Tsarnaev’s death earlier this week but had not yet released the report, a spokeswoman said Friday. The official cause of death will be released in the certificate, which will be filed with Boston officials.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could face the death penalty if convicted. He is being held at Federal Medical Center-Devens, about 40 miles from Boston.