Faisal Shahzad: So Easy, Anyone Can Do It

By Jessica M. Vaughan on May 7, 2010

A review of the information that has been released on Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad's immigration history reveals a familiar pattern of a terrorist easily taking advantage of weak spots in America’s immigration system. Shahzad was admitted long before 9/11, but the openings he exploited are still in place today. Until policymakers move to shrink them, they offer a sobering guarantee of job security for counter-terrorism and security personnel for the foreseeable future.

Contrary to what some news media have stated, it is not completely clear that Shahzad always maintained legal status. In addition, there are aspects of his immigration history that indicate his possible awareness of how to work our system, suggesting this was neither a case of "home grown" terrorism, nor a case of "a legal immigrant's failed American Dream," as suggested by a CBS newscaster. Consider the following chronology, reported in the New York Times.

• June 30, 1979
– born in Pakistan.

• December 22, 1998
– Issued student visa in Islamabad. It is difficult to justify the issuance of this student visa. Shahzad certainly failed to demonstrate that he had "sufficient academic preparation to pursue the intended course of study," as the regulations require, or at least they did in the 1990s when I was issuing (and refusing) student visas. He was applying as a transfer student, and his transcript from his correspondence course with Southeastern University, a now defunct fourth-rate academic program, showed a GPA of 2.78, including several Ds and an F (in basic statistics). No information has been released on how Shahzad claimed he would pay for his education, which is another common deal-buster for student visa applications. What on earth was this consular officer thinking? Probably about how annoyed the embassy senior staff might be if Shahzad's father, supposedly a prominent military officer, complained about a visa refusal. And, why was the visa issued for four years, when two would have sufficed to complete the degree? For some reason most reporters have felt the need to assert that Shahzad underwent a "criminal background check" in order to qualify for the visa. Not exactly. In 1998 this would have been a check of CLASS, the consular database with information on prior refusals, ineligibilities, and derogatory information such as federal arrest warrants, and TIPOFF, which was a watchlist of known and suspected terrorists. Today's watch lists and databases offer far more useful information, but still would not have provided grounds for refusal. Consular officers should rely more on the law and on common sense, not just the databases, as the mere absence of a criminal conviction or documented tie to terrorism is not enough to qualify for a U.S. visa.

• Fall 2000
– Graduates from University of Bridgeport, Conn. Even though foreign students are supposed to pay their own way, private papers uncovered by an intrepid local newspaper reporter revealed that Shahzad had been awarded a grant of $6,700 from the University of Bridgeport to help cover his tuition.

• 2001
– Begins working for a temporary staffing agency. Shahzad entered on a student visa, which does not include permission to work. It is possible he was granted Optional Practical Training status, which allows foreign students to stay and work after graduating (the "training" label is a complete charade; it's just a work permit). If so, there would be an application and a work permit on file with the school and with USCIS. The details are a little sketchy; it is not clear from the timing of his employment that this was feasible, but it could have played out that way. At any rate, the fact that any foreign student can get approval to remain here after graduating to work at a temporary staffing agency under the guise of "practical training" is an illustration of just how absurdly anarchic our immigration system has become.

• 2002
– Issued H-1B visa. Shahzad was sponsored by Elizabeth Arden to work in a low-level accounting job, yet another validation of H-1B critics' assertions that this controversial visa program brings in mainly ordinary workers, not the best and the brightest IT stars. See my colleague John Miano's work.

• 2004
– Obtains mortgage with Huma Anif Mian (U.S. citizen and future spouse).

• 2004
– Comes under scrutiny of the local Joint Terrorism Task Force. The JTTFs are local multi-agency units that investigate cases related to national security. No information has been released as to why the JTTF was interested in Shahzad.

• February 2005
– U.S. citizen wife files green card petition. Neighbors of Shahzad's bride have told reporters that he had visited her in Colorado just once before she left to marry him.

• January 2006
– Green card approved. USCIS was apparently unconcerned about either the suddenness of the marriage or the JTTF investigation. Immigration benefits adjudicators have little time or incentive to review cases closely. This case demonstrates the basic reality that the green card application process is firmly rigged in the alien's favor, with few applications refused or challenged, especially those involving marriage to a U.S. citizen. Marriage to a U.S. citizen is one of the easiest and most popular ways for illegal aliens (and terrorists) to obtain a green card. See my colleague Dave Seminara's report on the marriage visa process.

• October 2008
– Applies for citizenship. Shahzad wasted no time applying for U.S. citizenship, which can happen after three years of marriage to a U.S. citizen, compared with five years of residency for other legal immigrants. Shahzad's alacrity in submitting his citizenship application was not normal. The average immigrant waits six to ten years before applying, according to DHS statistics. For one thing, the process is expensive ($675) and includes a lot of paperwork and passing a test. But U.S. citizenship is a hot commodity for anyone involved with terrorism, as U.S. citizens face less scrutiny than foreign nationals when coming and going from the country and, unlike green card-holders, can live overseas indefinitely without losing status. (For more on the importance of citizenship for terrorists, see my colleague Steve Camarota's The Open Door: How Terrorists Entered and Remained in the United States, 1993-2001.) Becoming a U.S. citizen did not require Shahzad to give up his Pakistani passports, which would have been useful in concealing long periods of travel to countries like Pakistan, which would draw the attention of immigration inspectors at U.S. ports of entry upon return.

• April 17, 2009
– Sworn in as U.S. citizen. Again, it appears that USCIS was untroubled by or unaware of the previous JTTF investigation.

• June 2, 2009
– Departs for Pakistan.

• February 3, 2010
– Returns to U.S.

• May 1, 2010
– Attempts to set off bomb in Times Square.