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.
The Department of Homeland Security is paying particular attention to stopping problems at the source. ICE now has personnel in 75 offices in 48 countries who collaborate with various domestic and international agencies to disrupt and dismantle transnational criminal organizations engaged in illicit activities ranging from money laundering to human rights violations.
The agency also facilitates the repatriation of individuals with final orders of removal, returning violators and those unlawfully present to their home countries.
Shonnie Lyon, acting director of the Office of Biometric Identity Management, told the subcommittee that biometric identity management also is playing “a critical role in supporting the Department of Homeland Security’s mission to secure the nation” by providing biometric analysis services within the department and the intelligence community.
While the visa tracking system has shown substantial improvement since 9/11, some gaps remain, according to Rebecca Gambler, director of homeland security and justice in the Government Accountability Office. The Department of Homeland Security is reviewing the records of potential over-stayers to identify national security and public safety threats but a number of unmatched arrival records remain.
As of January 2011, DHS’s Arrival and Departure Information System (ADIS) contained a backlog of 1.6 million potential overstay records. Since then, the department has closed about 863,000 records and removed them from the backlog. But as of April, DHS still maintains more than one million unmatched arrival-departure records – 44 percent involving tourist visas.
Gambler said the department has taken steps to improve data on potential over-stays and overstay rates “but the impact of these changes is not yet known.”
The department continues to have problems providing reliable overstay rates. Federal law requires it to report overstay estimates but it has failed to do so since its creation in 2002, acknowledging in 2011 that it hasn’t followed through because it has not had sufficient confidence in the quality of its overstay data. Secretary Janet Napolitano plans to release overstay rates by December 2013.
Problems also exist in establishing a biometric exit system at air and sea ports of entry. Since 1996, federal law has required the implementation of an integrated entry and exit data system for foreign nationals, Gambler said. Earlier this month, the House Homeland Security Committee passed the Border Security Results Act of 2013, which contained a provision requiring the department to develop a plan for a biometric exit capability at ports of entry.
But, while the Department of Homeland Security is focused on developing a biometric exit system for airports, with the potential for a similar solution at seaports, Gambler said it has yet to be determined when the program could be implemented.
“Congress first mandated an entry-exit system for visitors to the U.S. in 1996,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), the committee’s ranking member. “While DHS has made significant progress by implementing a biometric entry system, a solution for biometric exit has been far more difficult to come by. We have seen the troubled history of this effort, from a system of kiosks located in inconvenient and inconsistent locations in airports, to two pilots involving Customs and Border Patrol and the Transportation Security Administration, each of which had advantages and disadvantages. What is needed now is a clear path forward on biometric exit.”