Inability to track foreign visitors to US

Homeland Security estimates that 3.6 million people currently residing in the United States have overstayed their visa

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Seven years after the attacks of September 11, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a better idea of who’s coming into the United States, but it cannot say if the visitors are overstaying their welcome. On average, more than 30 million “nonimmigrant” travelers stream in and out of the country each year; DHS estimates that 3.6 million people currently residing in the United States came here on travel visas and overstayed the visas’ limits. Among those numbers, in 2001, were three of the 19 September 11 hijackers. Post-9/11 homeland security measures include US-VISIT, an entry-exit system that is supposed to track travelers in the United States. DHS has invested more than $1.7 billion in the program. Originally, it required immigration officials to collect two fingerprints from visa applicants. Upon a visitor’s entry into the U.S., officials check the prints against databases of “known criminals and suspected terrorists.”

Another scan of the prints upon departure — in theory — creates a record of a visitor’s exit, while helping immigration officials begin the process of identifying visa-holders who may have overstayed their welcome. At the outset, foreign governments kicked up a fuss over the new requirements — Brazil even started fingerprinting U.S. travelers in return — but in September 2008, DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker crowed about the program’s success. “We got it up and running from scratch, despite the doubters,” he wrote on the department’s blog. “And it’s so successful that we’re expanding it to collect all 10 (finger)prints and to compare them to prints found in terrorist safe houses around the world.” Baker skipped over one detail: While the “entry” half of the program is ticking along, DHS is lagging years behind schedule for installing the “exit” capabilities, despite investments topping $250 million. The department could not say “what program capabilities will be delivered when,” according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Part of the problem is that proposals for a successful exit program would seem to require mirroring the processes used for entry; that might create hefty new staffing and infrastructure requirements, program officials told GAO. After admitting to low compliance rates in exit pilot programs, DHS embarked on enlisting airlines as partners, hoping that they could integrate security measures into normal check-in procedures for departing visa-holders. The airlines, however, are resisting this proposal. “Congress has made it quite clear that the federal government is responsible for the US-VISIT-Air Exit Program, not the airlines,” John Meenan, the executive vice president of the Air Transport Association, reminded a House committee in July. A second series of pilot programs will test two scenarios: in one program, airlines will collect the fingerprints, and in the other the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol will be responsible. Although the DHS press office did not respond to a request for comment, in February 2008 Secretary Chertoff told Congress, "Taking all 10 fingerprints will improve accuracy and allow us to increase the number of matches from latent prints captured all over the world." Still, the bottom line remains troubling; although the US-VISIT entrance program may keep out unwanted visitors, DHS still has no effective way of identifying those who illegally stay behind.

Follow-up:
In September, US-VISIT took a financial gut-punch in the 2009 homeland security appropriations bill. Congress cut the Bush administration’s request for the program by $90 million and demanded a report from Secretary Michael Chertoff on a “plan for expenditure” and a complete schedule for implementation of the program.

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