A report from the Homeland Security inspector general says that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) is able to catch only 0.4% of foreigners who overstay their visas.
The report cites incompetence by DHS IT managers and an inefficient visa tracking system that features dozens of unlinked data bases that ICE must go through in order to discover those who have overstayed their visas.
In many cases, ICE relies on passenger manifests from airlines to determine who is in the U.S illegally.
Department of Homeland Security IT systems did not effectively support ICE visa tracking operations. ICE personnel responsible for investigating in-country visa overstays pieced together information from dozens of systems and databases, some of which were not integrated and did not electronically share information. Despite previous efforts to improve information sharing, the DHS Chief Information Officer (CIO) did not provide the oversight and centralized management needed to address these issues. Additionally, ICE did not ensure that its field personnel received the training and guidance needed to properly use the systems currently available to conduct visa overstay tracking.
Further, the Department lacked a comprehensive biometric exit system at U.S. ports of departure to capture information on nonimmigrant visitors who exit the United States. Without a complete exit system, DHS relied on third-party departure data, such as commercial carrier passenger manifests, to confirm a visitor’s departure from the country. However, these commercial sources occasionally provided false departure or arrival status on visitors.
The numbers are appalling.
The agency has 27 different databases used to investigate and track immigrants who remain in the country past the deadline issued on their temporary visas. The lack of a cohesive system has “produced numerous inefficiencies,” making ICE ineffective at catching visa overstays who may pose security risks, according to the audit.
Of the more than 500,000 identified overstays, only 3,402 were arrested, which amounts to less than 0.4 percent.
ICE’s databases also had inaccurate information recorded on those who were arrested.
“In some cases, the individuals arrested had been reported in DHS systems as having already left the United States,” the inspector general said. “Because this information was not recorded, ICE personnel were unable to provide an exact number when asked during our audit.”
The United States issued more than 10.8 million nonimmigrant visas in 2015. The inspector general said that although only a small percentage overstay their visas, those individuals could pose severe national security risks.
“For example, two of the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001, were visa overstays,” the inspector general said. “This prompted the 9/11 Commission to call for the government to ensure that all visitors to the United States are tracked on entry and exit.”
Part of the solution is for the U.S. to institute a biometric system at entry points like airports and sea ports. Retina scans are in common usage today across the western world so there should be no reason ICE shouldn’t be able to do the same here.
If a biometric system were implemented, ICE would have virtually immediate access to those who were in the country illegally.
But that would take a radical overhaul of DHS computer systems, some of which are so antiquated that they are unable to link with other data bases. There may be short-term fixes that address some of the problems, but the the changes would be only cosmetic. Being able to access bad data doesn’t really improve the situation.
So, the DHS has to order up a new computer system. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. The IT problem infects the entire government — every agency and department. Requesting an IT overhaul takes years to complete. It tool the FAA 11 years to upgrade its air traffic control computers (that was finally finished in 2015). Other upgrades don’t take quite as long, but in cases where the entire system is antiquated, a drastic redesign and implementation will still take many years.
If the president and the Republican Congress are serious about border security, they will address the needs of ICE to make their jobs not only easier, but possible.