WASHINGTON – The United States is facing significant challenges in patrolling borders and enforcing immigration laws,Department of Homeland Security officials reported at a U.S. Senate committee hearing Monday.
Advances have been made in regulating people using visas to enter the country,through biometric screening technology,but there is still no way to track if people are leaving when their visas expire,said Elaine Dezenski,assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy and planning.
“Now our focus is on the exit part of the system,” Dezenski said.
Congress mandated the creation of an electronic entry and exit program after the Sept. 11,2001,terrorist attacks. Since January 2004,the agency has denied entry to 471 criminals and immigration violators based on biometric screening of 20.5 million people.
Sen. John Cornyn,R-Texas,who led the joint hearing of the Senate subcommittees on immigration,border security and on terrorism,technology and homeland security,said 40 percent of illegal immigrants living in the United States enter the country legally,but remain illegally after their visas expire.
“I am deeply troubled by our chronic inability,even our unwillingness at times,to do what is necessary to enforce our immigration laws,” Cornyn said.
Cornyn said border security was critical in stopping terrorists from entering the country and preventing an occurrence similar to the September 2001 attacks.
“All of the 9/11 attackers entered our country through a legitimate port of entry,passing through border security 68 times prior to carrying out their deadly attacks,” Cornyn said. “These border encounters are the time to detect and arrest.”
More than 500 million people come across U.S. borders legally each year,about two-thirds non-citizens. About 500,000 people enter the country illegally,without inspection,according to the 9/11 commission report drafted in response to the attacks.
Cornyn said after recently visiting a U.S. border and talking with patrol officers,he is not sure they were prepared to deal with potential terrorists.
“What they tell me is they feel out-manned,and not equipped,” Cornyn said.
Thomas J. Walters,Customs and Border Protection's assistant commissioner for training and development,said new recruits undergo 73 days of training,and it is doing all it can to ensure officers have the necessary training.
“We have never paid more attention to our borders than we are right now,” Walters said.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy,D-Mass.,asked how successful the terrorist watch list has been in detecting criminals. The system was created in 1993 and allows the U.S. State Department to retain fees from processing visas to create a worldwide electronic terrorist watch list.
In its report,the 9/11 commission said the system had many holes before the Sept. 11 attacks. Dezenski said the list is now being updated daily,with reports from various agencies,including the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
The lack of shared intelligence between the agencies was also criticized in the report drafted in response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“I think it's gotten better,” Dezenski said. “I don't know if I'd go as far to say they're working in perfect harmony.”
Cornyn said future hearings will be held to examine the need to strengthen the U.S. deportation system.