WASHINGTON (AP) _ The federal government is cracking down on the student visas that allow 600,000 foreigners every year to enter the United States. At least two suspected terrorist hijackers were in the country under student-visa provisions.
``We welcome legal immigrants,'' President Bush said Monday in announcing the crackdown. ``What we don't welcome are people who come to hurt the American people, and so therefore, we're going to be very diligent with our visas and observant with the behavior of people who come to this country.
``We're going to start asking a lot of questions that heretofore have not been asked,'' Bush said.
As he chaired the debut meeting of his Homeland Security Council, the president also put Attorney General John Ashcroft at the helm of a new task force on tracking terrorists and making sure they do not slip into the United States.
Bush instructed the Justice, Treasury and State departments to work with Canada and Mexico on a shared immigration and customs database that would make all three nations' cross-border policies compatible.
He asked White House science and technology experts to work with the CIA on recommendations to use advanced technology in enforcing immigration laws.
Bush gave few details about what changes foreign students might expect, except to say his administration will ``tighten up the visa policy'' and keep an eye on students after they arrive.
``We're going to make sure that when somebody comes we understand their intended purpose, and that they fulfill the purpose on their application,'' Bush said.
About 600,000 foreigners are admitted each year on student visas and more than 26,000 U.S. colleges and universities are authorized to enroll them.
Federal investigators have concluded that Hani Hanjour, one of the men suspected of hijacking the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, entered the United States last December on a student visa after promising to enroll _ but never showing up _ at Holy Names College in Oakland, Calif.
Mohamed Atta, suspected of being at the controls of one of the two jets that crashed into the World Trade Center, was allowed to enter the country after immigration officials determined that he had an application for a student visa pending.
``We're generous with our universities. We're generous with our job opportunities,'' Bush said in the White House Cabinet Room. ``And never did we realize that people would take advantage of our generosity to the extent they have.''
The counterterrorism legislation that Bush signed into law Friday included $36.8 million to put in place before the end of the year a database to track foreign students. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, ``agrees tighter controls are needed'' and has already introduced legislation restricting student visas, said spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter.
Flanked by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Bush said the American people appeared to be bouncing back from the trauma of Sept. 11. ``I find the mood of the country to be incredibly refreshing and strong and powerful,'' he said.
As to when the economy might follow suit, Bush said he was optimistic it will happen but had no idea when. ``How long it will take to recover to the levels that we hope is beyond my pay grade,'' he said.
Some lawmakers have proposed a six-month moratorium on new foreign student visas until a system for tracking them can be implemented. Bush stopped short of that step on Monday.
The new task force, which is to be up and running by Thursday, will also coordinate efforts by government agencies to locate, detain, prosecute or deport terror group associates who already live here.
``The country must stay on alert,'' Bush said. ``Our enemies still hate us.''
Ashcroft and Powell, who just a few months ago were considering relaxing the immigration system for guest workers, will lead the effort to tighten controls on student visas.
The pair will ``look at all options, all policies and procedures relating to access of noncitizens to this country,'' Tom Ridge, director of Bush's Office of Homeland Security, told reporters.
``A point of access becomes a point of vulnerability,'' Ridge said, adding that it's too early to say whether Bush will be able to tighten the visa system on his own or will need Congress to approve legislation.