Problems remain in flight school security

Few changes are evident following Stow arrests

‘The airport managers are obviously working more closely with TSA and ICE.’ ‘The airport managers are obviously working more closely with TSA and ICE.’
By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / February 21, 2011

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Several months after federal officials arrested the immigrant owner of a Stow flight school and 33 of his students for being in the United States illegally, officials have not instituted new safeguards to prevent something similar from happening again.

No links to terrorism were found at TJ Aviation Flight Academy, but critics jarred by the episode nearly a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks questioned how it was possible for an illegal immigrant to obtain a pilot’s license, open a flight school in Massachusetts, and teach other immigrants here illegally to fly small aircraft.

“It’s shocking how many vulnerabilities are still there, gaping open, this long after 9/11,’’ said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors tougher limits on immigration. “We clearly need to have more checkpoints and more due diligence along the way to make sure that this can’t happen.’’

US immigration officials arrested school owner Thiago DeJesus last July and, during the next several months, 33 students at the school, all from Brazil and many carrying expired visas, for being in the country illegally. DeJesus said the students had obtained clearance from the Transportation Security Administration to learn to fly single-engine planes at Minute Man Airfield, about 30 miles northwest of Boston.

The TSA, which is in charge of scrutinizing all foreign flight students before they can take flying lessons or get a pilot’s license in the United States, is working with federal immigration officials “to refine the process for checking the immigration status of alien flight school students,’’ said TSA spokesman Greg Soulé.

Soulé said the TSA fully vets foreign flight students using criminal, terrorism, and immigration databases when they apply for permission to take lessons, to ensure that they are not known or suspected threats to aviation. Flight schools are required to keep a copy of each visa for their records.

But the TSA does not always follow up to ensure that a student stops flying when his or her visa expires. And after the initial TSA check, students can go on to obtain a pilot’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA is also investigating what happened with the Stow flight school. But agency spokeswoman Laura J. Brown said her agency relies on the TSA for criminal and immigration background checks.

She said the FAA does not have the legal authority to revoke a pilot’s license for being in the country illegally.

DeJesus’s pilot’s license remained valid after his arrest last year. After he was released pending a hearing in Boston immigration court, he resumed teaching people how to fly. His school closed after a Globe article about the arrests was published in November.

In an interview last year, DeJesus told a Globe reporter that he was in the country legally. But his lawyer, Venessa Masterson, said he had overstayed his visa.

On Dec. 22, a Boston immigration judge gave DeJesus 60 days to leave the United States voluntarily, by the end of this month, instead of being deported, his lawyer said.

Of the 34 arrested from the Stow school last year, three have been allowed to return to Brazil voluntarily and two others were deported, said Chuck Jackson, spokesman for US Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which made the arrests. The rest are in removal proceedings, he said.

Vaughan suggested that several federal agencies should assume part of the responsibility for screening illegal immigrants from flight schools.

The FAA could check immigration status before issuing a pilot’s license, she said, and the TSA and ICE could ensure that immigrants aren’t continuing to fly airplanes after their visas expire.

“Everyone seems to be passing the buck,’’ she said.

Christopher Willenborg, administrator for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division, which oversees 36 public and private noncommercial airports in Massachusetts, said he has seen better coordination since the Globe article was published.

The TSA and ICE appear to be working together more, he said, and TSA agents are showing up more frequently at airports.

In addition, airport managers plan to meet soon with immigration officials, and the aeronautics division is updating its security directives at the airports.

“The airport managers are obviously working more closely with TSA and ICE,’’ he said. “They’ve increased their visits out to the airports. There’s an increased effort to coordinate better in regards to all parties involved.’’

Still, security varies by airport in Massachusetts.

At Massport’s Hanscom Field, all flight students and pilots must undergo a criminal background check and obtain a security badge, in addition to whatever the TSA requires, said spokesman Richard Walsh. If they are foreign nationals, Walsh said, their badge expires when their visa does.

He said the airport, among the busiest noncommercial airports in New England, instituted the requirements after Sept. 11, 2001, as an added layer of security.

“We do more than what is required because security is our first priority,’’ said Walsh.

But at Minute Man Air Field, which is a much smaller airport off a quiet country road in Stow, there are no such requirements. Airport owner Don McPherson said checking immigration issues is the federal government’s responsibility.

“I don’t think it’s up to the airports [to question immigration status]. It’s out of our jurisdiction,’’ he said. “Most airport managers have tenants that provide flight training, and it’s the tenant’s responsibility to follow those rules.’’

Eli Luria, who opened his own flight school, Tenle Aviation Inc., in the same location that TJ Aviation vacated in Stow, said he told a TSA agent that he would monitor the visas himself to ensure that none of his foreign students take lessons with expired visas.

“Basically I’ve made my own commitment to myself that when I do have an alien that wants to do training, that I’ll verify his visa on my own, even though it’s not a requirement,’’ said Luria, who was a part-time instructor at TJ Aviation.

He said his new business is separate from the former school.