Six months to the day after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Florida flight school that trained two of the terrorists, received their student visa approval forms from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. On Monday, Huffman Aviation received the paperwork acknowledging INS approvals for terrorists Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi. They piloted two hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center towers, killing nearly 3,000 people.
"This unbelievable government failure illustrates the absurdity of the student pilot background checks now being written into law in some states," said Andy Cebula, AOPA senior vice president of government and technical affairs. "If the federal government's own background checks leads to the issuing of visas to dead terrorists, then how in the world can individual flight schools be expected to ferret out the bad guys?
"The INS fiasco graphically shows that identifying terrorists is a federal government responsibility. And the feds need to fix their system now."
Both Atta and Al-Shehhi had entered the United States legally on business and tourist visas. At that time, neither was on a terrorist watch list, and both easily passed the background check conducted by U.S. embassies overseas. In August 2000, both applied to change their visa status from tourist to student so they could begin flight training. INS, after its normal background check, approved the status changes in July and August 2001 and sent both men letters of approval. But due to INS procedures and a huge backlog, the approval notices were sent to the flight school only this week.
Meanwhile, INS is now clamping down on flight schools and other airport businesses. AOPA has received several reports from California and Texas FBOs that have been targeted by INS audits. In some cases, these businesses have been given as little as three days to comply or face punitive action. One flight school in California was served notice to provide, within three days, all I-9 forms and supporting documents for all employees hired or terminated within the last three years. The owner estimates this will cost in excess of $1,000 in manpower and lost revenue. (All employers are required to maintain I-9 forms to verify that employees are working legally.)
While AOPA applauds the new efforts of the Department of Justice to tighten security and perform its statutory obligations, these unreasonable deadlines on businesses place an undue burden upon an already damaged industry.