(Washington, DC) – Investigations & Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC) today released a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff asking him to rescind the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) determination that foreign graduate students in oceanography pose a “security threat” because they applied for a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) while holding a student visa, a category not eligible for the TWIC.
“The TSA has admitted that these students do not fall into any of the categories it uses to determine security threats, but it inexplicably refuses to change its determination,” Miller said. “I do not understand why these students weren’t simply told that they were not eligible for the TWIC and allowed to withdraw their applications.” Miller said that the students, who are legally in the United States, were now afraid to leave the country or travel for personal or academic purposes because of the official determination that they are a “security threat.”
The TWIC is required for everyone with access to secure areas of certain U.S. ports. The students, who carry out research on ocean-going vessels, are frequently working in those areas loading equipment and doing other tasks related to their research. A number of students in a joint oceanography program run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) applied for the TWIC, but were denied and told that they posed a “security threat” because their visa category was not on the list of eligible visa categories for the TWIC.
People posing a “security threat” are defined elsewhere by TSA as: people convicted of certain felonies; people involved in “severe transportation security” incidents; people denied admission to or who were removed from the United States in immigration proceedings; or people otherwise posing a “terrorism security risk.”
TSA officials have stated that the students should not worry because they are not on any “watch lists,” and the determination will not be shared with other law enforcement, intelligence or other federal or international agencies; however, Chairman Miller expressed concern for the students, including their ability to travel.
“This kind of determination has a habit of staying around,” said Miller. “TSA’s own website says this information can be shared.”
In his letter, Chairman Miller also expressed concern that the treatment of these foreign graduate students, who are enrolled in one of the nation’s premier graduate programs which attracts outstanding students from all over the world, would discourage similar students from studying in the United States. He suggested that either TSA withdraw the determinations or establish a process to provide credentials to these students and those from other universities in similar programs.