Candice Miller for Congress, Michigan

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Push made for stronger homeland security system

by Candice Miller on March 7, 2012

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

By Chad Selweski; @cbsnewsman

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller continues to push for a stronger homeland security system to keep tabs on potential terrorists who do not sneak into the country but merely overstay their visas.

Miller, chair of the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, held a congressional hearing on Tuesday where the panel heard testimony from John Cohen, deputy counter-terrorism coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security, and Peter Edge, deputy associate director for Homeland Security Investigations.

Miller, a Harrison Township Republican, is scrutinizing progress made since 2003 in indentifying visa overstays, especially among those who pose national security or public safety threats. She has called for a “robust” Department of Homeland Security plan to tighten the visa exit system so that it cannot be exploited.

Cohen told the subcommittee that DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a comprehensive review of the visa system last May. That project uncovered 843,000 visa overstays who were no longer in the country. Then, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Customs and Border Patrol vetted the remaining 757,000 potential in-country overstay leads, along with 82,000 previously vetted overstay leads, according to Cohen.

That process involves automated systems that query multiple databases, looking for “indicators” of terrorist activity, such as suspicious travel patterns or irregular travel behavior, Cohen said. The review was completed in July and leads have been pursued since then.

“As we continue to work to address today’s complex challenges, we will look for innovative ways to bridge gaps in information, technology, and human decision-making,” Cohen said in his testimony.

“… By strengthening and increasing coordination within the (Homeland Security Department), across the Federal Government, and with our international partners, we will develop and implement comprehensive measures that make efficient use of limited resources.”

DHS has also stepped up its coordination with the State Department to scrutinize visa holders.

“I was encouraged to hear … that DHS plans to present Congress in the coming weeks with a comprehensive visa-exit plan in order to improve our ability to track, identify and promptly remove those who overstay their visa,” Miller said. “I look forward to examining the DHS plan and will continue to conduct the vigorous oversight of those efforts needed to keep this nation safe.”

Prior to the hearing, Miller laid out the problem.

Since 9/11, most DHS security efforts have focused on securing the nation’s border. However, more than 40 percent of all illegal aliens do not sneak across the border, they come in “through the front door” and never leave, according to the congresswoman.

The recent case of Amine el-Khalifi created a stir on Capitol Hill. El-Khalifi, a visa “overstayer,” allegedly attempted a suicide attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Officials say that el-Khalifi is one of many terrorists, including several of the 9/11 hijackers, who have exploited the visa process. Since 2001, more than 36 visa “overstayers” have been convicted of terrorism-related charges.

“… What is especially troubling is that el-Khalifi (a Moroccan citizen) lived illegally in the U.S. for more than 13 years before being identified by law enforcement,” the subcommittee chair said.

In 2003, DHS created “status indicator technology” to indentify overstays. Prior to then, Congress had mandated a tougher visa-exit process in 1996, but that effort apparently fizzled.

“There is an important distinction to be made,” Miller said, “between those who cross the border, largely in search of a better life, and terrorists who abuse the visa process with the ultimate goal of murdering our fellow citizens

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