WASHINGTON – More than one million foreign visitors who remained beyond the expiration of their visa may still be in the U.S. and immigration officials are having a tough time tracking them all down.
While the nation’s tracing system has shown improvement over the past two years, a number of individuals, collectively known as “over-stayers,” present a potential threat to national security. And the failure to address the issue could carry “catastrophic consequences,” according to Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.).
“We have known for some time our visa process is vulnerable to exploitation by terrorists and others who seek to do us harm,” she said Tuesday, noting that four of the 9/11 hijackers were in the country on expired visas as well as a student who may have disturbed evidence in the Boston Marathon bombing probe.
“Clearly more must be done to ensure the integrity of the visa system, including enhancement to customs and border enforcements’ ability to identify and promptly remove those who overstay their visa,” said Miller, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, during a hearing on overstay problems.
Tracking down those who remain beyond the expiration of their visas is emerging as a major issue in the ongoing immigration reform debate. Earlier this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee debating such legislation adopted an amendment proposed by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) that requires foreign visitors exiting the country through any of the nation’s 30 busiest airports to be fingerprinted – an effort to determine who’s here and who’s not.
James Dinkins, executive associate director of homeland security investigations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), told the panel that officials constantly attempt to “verify the identities of individuals for a variety of purposes to determine whether they pose a risk to the United States and whether they meet the requirements for a specific government benefit or credential.”
“Aliens who violate their immigration status and overstay their authorized periods of admission implicate critical areas of DHS’s mission to protect national security and promoting the integrity of our immigration system,” he said.
Dinkins said the Department of Homeland Security “has made significant progress in preventing terrorists from exploiting the visa process.” Technological advances provide law enforcement with an opportunity to identify and mitigate national security and public safety threats in a cost-effective and expeditious manner.
Over the past few months, for instance, ICE has upgraded its Student and Exchange Visitor Information database, assuring that port inspectors have the most current information regarding a student visa holder’s status at the time of their entry and exit from the U.S. Another database provides inspectors with a daily record of status changes for every individual in the country on a visa, providing information used to determine whether a person should be welcomed in.
The department also is maintaining close contact with international, federal, state, local and tribal partners “to combat visa fraud and protect the integrity of our visa security system,” he said. The Counterterrorism and Criminal Exploitation Unit uses data to determine potential violations that warrant field investigations. Between 15,000 and 20,000 records are analyzed each month. Since the creation of the unit in 2003, more than two million such records have been analyzed.