GAO: Some Flight Students Enter U.S. Illegally

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The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) Wednesday announced that at least a few foreign students entered the country illegally, were not vetted by the TSA, and were approved for flight training by the Alien Flight Student Program (AFSP). In its report, the GAO concluded that "weaknesses exist" in the specific strategies intended to diminish the potential terrorist threat from general aviation aircraft. The GAO noted that the AFSP "is not designed" to determine how a flight student entered the country and that more than 25,000 foreign nationals applied for FAA airman certificates (completed training) from 2006 to September 2011. Of those, GAO says a known number may not have been vetted by the TSA, and at least six flight students approved for training by AFSP have been arrested by immigration authorities.

In March 2010, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigation led to the arrest of six foreign nationals, including one who held a commercial pilot certificate and five others approved for training through the AFSP. All were arrested for entering the country illegally. The TSA and ICE have since worked together to vet names against immigration databases, but the GAO says the agencies have not established timeframes, identified desired outcomes, or assigned people responsible for the program. The GAO recommends that the TSA find out "how often and why" foreign nationals are not vetted and create a plan "for assessing the results of efforts to identify" flight students who entered the country illegally. Speaking on behalf of light aircraft manufacturers, GAMA Vice President of Operations Jens Hennig said the organization believes restructuring efforts "will provide a more effective vetting of foreign nationals seeking flight training while increasing the efficiency of the program." GAMA "looks forward" to being a part of the discussions with the TSA that create a new plan.