WASHINGTON – Almost half of all illegal immigrants in the United States entered the country legally and then remained here after their visas expired, but the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) ability to track immigrants who stay past their visa expiration date is severely limited, according to a new report released Tuesday by Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me.
The report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 40-45 percent of the total population of illegal immigrants—4 to 5 million people— stayed past their visa expiration dates. But DHS’ U.S. VISIT program – which is supposed to identify people who overstay their visas by comparing entry and exit information – cannot keep up with the number of potential overstays it identifies by matching entry and exit records. In fact, US-VISIT processes less than half of the potential overstays it identifies, and GAO found that the program has a backlog of 1.6 million potential overstay records. Once a potential overstay has been identified, the information is provided to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which devotes just 3 percent of its investigative man-hours to tracking down immigrants whose visas have expired.
This population is of grave concern to law enforcement officials. Five of the 9/11 hijackers overstayed their visas, and GAO found that 36 of the roughly 400 people convicted of terrorism-related charges since September 2001 had overstayed their visas.
“Despite numerous congressional and DHS efforts, we still lack an exit system that will effectively identify people who have overstayed their visas, and do so in real time,” Lieberman said. “The reality is that U.S. VISIT remains a very troubled and ineffective program.
“Identifying individuals who overstay is a crucial component of securing our borders, and it is simply unacceptable that we are still unable to systematically identify people who overstay – some of whom may be terrorists waiting to attack innocent Americans. I am asking Secretary Napolitano to update the Committee on current efforts within the Department to close this dangerous vulnerability.”
Collins said: “According to the GAO report, ICE should do a better job identifying the estimated four million people in the United States who have stayed illegally after their permission to be here expired.
“The Pew Hispanic Center reports there are about 12 million individuals here illegally and between four million and 5.5 million of those came here legally but their visas have since expired. I understand that only three percent of ICE efforts are focused on these cases. That seems insufficient and shortsighted as almost half of all unauthorized residents fall into this category.”