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Flight school students arrested

Concerns raised on antiterror net; 34 immigrants allegedly illegal

STOW — Federal officials have arrested dozens of alleged illegal immigrants connected to a flight school in Stow, including the school’s owner and students who received US government clearance to train as pilots despite strict security controls put into place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The arrests of 34 Brazilian nationals that began in July and concluded quietly last month raise troubling new questions about possible holes in the government’s antiterrorism security net, which bans illegal immigrants from taking flight lessons and requires background checks on any foreigner training to fly in the United States.

No link to terrorism has been found in connection with the Stow flight school, TJ Aviation Flight Academy at Minute Man Air Field, 30 miles northwest of Boston, US immigration officials said.

All the arrested immigrants, who were learning to fly small single-engine planes, are free pending deportation hearings in federal immigration court, immigration officials said.

But the episode may have exposed problems in the Transportation Security Administration’s ability to make sure the only foreign students allowed to attend flight school are, as its website states, “properly checked, legal aliens.’’

That mandate stems from a 2004 order that TSA check all foreign flight students against terrorism, criminal and immigration databases after authorities discovered that several of the men who hijacked the airplanes used in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had received flight training in the United States.

TSA has faced questions before about its effectiveness in carrying out the order. In 2008 ABC News reported that thousands of foreign nationals were obtaining pilot’s licenses without the proper paperwork.

Officials at TSA and the Federal Aviation Administration, which issues pilot’s licenses, could not explain this week why alleged illegal immigrants were allowed to take classes and obtain pilot’s licenses in Stow.

TSA officials said they are conducting a review of the circumstances by which the immigrants obtained pilot’s licenses. Officials would not say how many students received clearance to fly and how many ultimately obtained pilot’s licenses.

However, TSA officials said they check the backgrounds of all foreign flight students and routinely check pilot’s licenses against terrorism watch lists.

“TSA performs a thorough background check on each applicant at the time of application to include terrorism and other watch list matching, criminal history, and checking for available disqualifying immigration information,’’ spokeswoman Ann Davis said in a statement. “There is currently a review ongoing into the circumstances by which these individuals were issued pilots’ licenses.’’

Among those arrested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are the school’s owner, Thiago DeJesus, a 26-year-old Brazilian immigrant who holds a license to fly single-engine airplanes and who was charged in July with being in the United States illegally, federal officials said. DeJesus continued to give flying lessons this week.

FAA spokeswoman Laura J. Brown confirmed that DeJesus is a licensed pilot and flight instructor but would not comment on the fact that his school is still open because the agency is investigating what she called safety issues in connection with the school. She declined to elaborate.

“We have an ongoing investigation,’’ she said.

Thousands of foreign pilots train in the United States every year because of the high quality and relatively low cost.

Foreigners who wish to take flight lessons must first register online with TSA and provide biographical information that the agency uses to determine if they are on terrorism watch lists, have criminal histories, or any disqualifying immigration information. Students are also fingerprinted and pay a fee.

Most applicants come from outside the country, said TSA spokesman Greg Soule.

Soule said TSA checks immigration information when prospective students apply. The agency does not follow up in every case to ensure that those who take classes obtain the necessary immigration documents.

Students must also show their passports and visas to their flight instructor, who must keep copies on file. TSA inspectors conduct unannounced audits to ensure that the records are in order.

By contrast, the FAA does not have any responsibility for checking the immigration status of flight students or pilots, Brown said. The agency’s role is to ensure that pilots have completed proper training before they receive a pilot’s license, she said.

This week, TJ Aviation Flight Academy remained open for business, teaching students on Cessna and other single-engine airplanes at the air field off a quiet country road in this small town of about 6,000 people.

DeJesus, owner of TJ Aviation, denied in an interview that he is in the country illegally. He said he came to the country at age 16 from southern Brazil and is a legal resident. He declined to provide proof of residency.

Kathryn Mattingly, a federal immigration court spokeswoman, said DeJesus was accused in July of being in the United States illegally. He is scheduled for a deportation hearing in Boston in February.

FAA records show that DeJesus has a valid pilot’s license to fly single-engine airplanes and to teach flying. He registered TJ Aviation Inc. with the Massachusetts secretary of state in 2008 and said he has been teaching flying for two years.

DeJesus said that all of his foreign students obtained TSA approval before he allowed them to take classes, as the law requires, and that he did not know that they were in the country illegally. The students paid $165 an hour for the lessons, he said.

“It’s something that [TSA] approved in the first place,’’ said DeJesus. “Every student that we had went to the TSA, and TSA approved them.’’

Last month, he said, the TSA sent him an e-mail revoking approval for many of the students. Around the same time, he said, federal immigration agents arrested many of those same students for deportation.

He said he had followed the rules and pointed out that federal officials have allowed his flight school to remain open.

“You think if we did something wrong, we’d still be open as a flight school?’’ he asked.

He said many students hope to earn their pilot’s licenses to get better jobs in their native Brazil.

“In Brazil, being a pilot is almost like being a doctor,’’ said DeJesus, who speaks fluent English. “These are honest people. . . . They just want a better future.’’

William Joyce, a Boston-based immigration lawyer who is representing a few of TJ Aviation’s former students, said many of his clients felt betrayed by DeJesus. He said they wanted to take flying lessons but did not realize that they would be exposed to immigration checks. The assumption is perhaps naive, he said, since illegal immigrants are not even eligible for driver’s licenses in Massachusetts.

“All I know is this: these people are in big trouble,’’ Joyce said.

Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com or on Twitter at @mariasacchetti.  

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