US Fails to Track Foreign Visitors Who Overstay Visas

By Cathy Burke   |   Friday, 01 Jan 2016 01:55 PM

Federal officials admit they’ve lost track of how many foreign visitors overstay their visas every year – despite a nearly 20-year-old law requiring the government to develop a tracking system, The New York Timesreports.

Federal agencies haven’t even provided a new report to Congress on overstays since 1994, the Times reports.

“Since 1996, Congress has required that an exit system be put in place to determine visa overstays,” the House Oversight Committee sternly noted prior to a hearing on the issue Dec. 17.

“The biometric exit system has yet to be put in place, and DHS has failed to issue a mandated report to Congress on the number of overstays who remain in the U.S. in violation of the law.”

Lawmakers worry radical Islamic terrorists could exploit the visa program because the United States doesn’t routinely collect biometric information on people leaving the country – including fingerprints, iris scans and photographs.

And at the Dec. 17 House Oversight hearing, an official revealed that of 9,500 visas revoked over terrorism concerns since 2001, the United States doesn’t know where all those former visa-holders are.

“Having accurate data on who is coming and going — not who is pretending to be coming and going — is essential to curtailing the insidious and increasing direct threat that ISIS is loudly declaring at our homeland,” Janice Kephart, former counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee and a staff member on the 9/11 Commission, warned Congress last year, the Times reports.

At the House oversight hearing last month, however, Alan Bersin, the assistant secretary for international affairs at DHS, conceded “we don’t know” when asked about the number of visa overstays.

One 1997 report by the Immigration and Naturalization Service puts the number of people who overstay their visas at 40 percent, about 4.4 million of an estimated illegal immigrants currently in the United States, the Times reports.


Bersin told congressional lawmakers a report on overstay rates – first promised in 2013 by former secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano – would come out in the next six months.

According to the Times, officials blame the lack of a tracking system on a lack of technology, resistance from the airline and tourism industry because of cost, and questions about the usefulness of tracking people leaving the country as a counterterrorism measure.

Yet the urgency for tracking was first outlined by the 9/11 Commission, which recommended the Department of Homeland Security complete an entry and exit tracking system “as soon as possible,” the Times reports, adding two 9/11 hijackers, Satam al-Suqami and Nawaf al-Hazmi, had overstayed their visas.

Since then, “millions” have been spent in the effort, but officials can still only estimate the number of overstays, the Times reports.

“U.S. airports and other entry and exit points were never designed with departure control in mind,” Theresa Cardinal Brown, the director of Immigration Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington and a Department of Homeland Security official under President George W. Bush, tells the Times.

“If we want to do that it’s going to mean building a lot more infrastructure.”

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