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House Panel To Examine Challenges Of Tracking US Visa Overstays

by Candice Miller on September 14, 2011

By: Mickey McCarter
Homeland Security Today
On the heels of a report card from members of the 9/11 Commission faulting the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for not electronically tracking visa overstays, the House Homeland Security Committee Tuesday will convene a hearing to examine the challenge of monitoring US visa holders.
Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, the chairs of the 9/11 Commission, released a report last month on the occasion of the then-upcoming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to highlight nine unfulfilled recommendations from their commission’s report, issued in 2004.
The report card, published by the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank, listed the failure of DHS to stand up an exit system to identify when travelers to the United States leave the country as one of those unfulfilled recommendations. The US-VISIT system presently registers them when they arrive, but they leave without any electronic notification, leaving DHS to identify visa overstays through other means that involve a lot of work.
“Full deployment of the biometric exit component of US-VISIT should be a high priority. Such a capability would have assisted law enforcement and intelligence officials in August and September 2001 in conducting a search for two of the 9/11 hijackers that were in the United States on expired visas,” read the report card, 10th Anniversary Report Card: The Status of the 9/11 Commission Recommendations. At least four of the 19 hijackers actually overstayed their visas in some fashion.
Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), chair of the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, asked Hamilton about the recommendation during a hearing of the full committee last Thursday, seeking input into her panel’s Tuesday hearing, which will receive testimony from officials at US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the State Department, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), but not the National Protection and Programs Directorate, which houses US-VISIT.
Hamilton testified: “A biometric exit system is required by law today. It’s in the law. DHS will tell you it costs too much to implement. If that’s the case, they should come back to Congress with a plan on how to deal with it and ask for the money.”
Indeed, DHS officials have told Congress that the exit system is too expensive and thus impractical. While US-VISIT registers visitors entering the United States electronically, DHS currently has no plans to add an exit tracking capability to the system, which would help quickly flag visa overstays.
To deal with the cost, Hamilton urged DHS to phase in an exit system incrementally over a number of years. As the vast majority of foreign travelers enter the United States by air, DHS first should focus its resources on installing an exit capability at US airports, Hamilton said.
“It is a tough problem, but the law is the law. It is vitally important to the security of the country that we have a biometric exit system,” Hamilton said.
Without an exit system to track visa overstays, DHS is left to manually vet US visa overstays, travelers who remain in the country longer than authorized to do so. According to estimates, nearly half of illegal immigrants in the United States entered the country legally and then simply never left.
DHS now faces a backlog of about 757,000 expired visas to vet for overstays, Miller noted at Thursday’s hearing.
GAO Comptroller Gene Dodaro called upon DHS to take three steps to control visa overstays. The first was to implement a biometric exit system that would capture traveler fingerprints and/or photographs as they leave the country.
The second was to stand up more visa security units run by ICE in high-risk nations to prescreen visa applicants and thereby avoid admitting dangerous travelers into the United States in the first place. And Dodaro’s third recommendation was to bring the final 2 percent of travelers under the Visa Waiver Program who do not register electronically to enter the country under the program’s electronic notification system.
Although ICE has stepped up its investigations of visa overstays, DHS would benefit from a system that tracked visa admissions electronically and informed officials as to when visa holders remained in the country longer than authorized, Dodaro noted in his written testimony. He promised GAO further would examine the challenges associated with an electronic exit system in the future

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