WASHINGTON – Of the more than 32 million foreign visitors to the United States in 2004,the government has no idea how many of them might still be here illegally.
The number comes from a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center and was the subject of two recent hearings on Capitol Hill.
At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terror,technology and homeland security Jan. 31,officials from Department of Homeland Security admitted there is no system to track illegal visitors who stay longer than the date on their visas.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein,D-Calif.,expressed concern about DHS's failure to implement the U.S. Visitor Immigrant Statues Indicator Technology Program at the 50 busiest land border crossings. She called the issue an interplay between immigration and national security.
“The congressional mandate to create a system for tracking who enters and leaves this country was first codified in 1996 with a deadline of establishing a workable program by September 30,1998,almost ten years ago,” Feinstein said,according to a transcript of the hearing. “Since that time,Congress has extended the deadline over and over again.”
US-VISIT is intended to enhance the security of U.S. citizens and visitors,ease travel and trade and protect the privacy of U.S. visitors.
Robert A. Mocny,US-VISIT's acting director,testified at a Feb. 16 hearing of the subcommittee on Homeland Security of the House Appropriations Committee about the program's achievements and advanced technology.
He said with collaboration and cooperation of official institutions he will improve the management system of U.S. borders.
Biometric indicators,including fingerprints and digital photos,are used to help identify visitors from most countries. These measures of human physical and behavioral characteristics will help US-VISIT and Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials analyze the overstays,identify visa applicants who violated visa renewals and any other immigration-related issue.
The Government Accountability Office provided a report at the Feb.16 hearing called “US-VISIT has not fully met expectations and longstanding program management challenges need to be addressed.”
Key findings in the report are that,after almost four years and more than $1 billion,DHS has biometric systems at most ports of entries. However,the agency has not set the systems to track those who are supposed to leave as their visas expire.
The report found that in 2004,the most recent data available,about 335.3 million people entered the United States through land ports. Of that number,only 1.4 percent were processed under US-VISIT. Another 75.1 million entered the country at airports. Of that group,42.2 percent went through the program. Of the 14.7 million who entered by sea,38 percent were recorded by US-VISIT.
Rep. David E. Price,D-N.C.,chairman of the subcommittee,said the issue to be discussed in the hearing was lack of a meaningful exit capacity.
President Bush proposed an increase of $99.5 million,or 27 percent,in his 2008 budget for US-VISIT. But Price said he didn't think that increase would go to improving exit controls.
“The total resources provided to this program would exceed $2 billion over the five years since 9/11,” Price said. “But we still have no way to know if people visiting the U.S. have left,even though we know that millions of undocumented aliens in this country are so-called ‘overstays.'”
He said this ignorance is both a security gap and a key problem for immigration reform,and the exit component had not received the level of support from the secretary and the White House to be successful.
Jeffery S. Passel,senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center said,”When you leave over the land borders,you encounter either a Canadian or Mexican immigration official but not a U.S. official. … There is not a data collection mechanism in place.”
Mocny asked the committee to approve the total US-VISIT budget request of $462 million.
“The subcommittee will continue to examine the US-VISIT program in the coming month before they put together its appropriations” said Price's press secretary,Paul Cox.