WASHINGTON — (KRT) — The federal government vastly underestimates how many foreigners are overstaying their U.S. visas — as four of the Sept. 11 hijackers did — and isn’t tracking them adequately, a new federal report said Thursday.
“Weaknesses in overstay tracking may encourage visitors and potential terrorists who legally enter the United States to overstay,” concludes a 57-page report from the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
No one knows how many aliens are overstaying their visas.
The Department of Homeland Security figures that 2.3 million people are in the country on expired visas, but the GAO said the real number is considerably higher because federal officials didn’t count millions of Mexicans and Canadians, and because the government tracks exiting visitors haphazardly.
Some advocates of tighter immigration controls call this a security issue, noting that Mohamed Atta and three other Sept. 11 hijackers overstayed their visas. Immigration advocates say the overwhelming majority of aliens who overstay are trying to remain in the United States legally, but are trapped by a slow-moving federal bureaucracy.
“Poor border governance, outdated tracking systems and lax interior visa enforcement continue to put us at unnecessary risk as we go about our daily lives,” said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who’s proposed changes in immigration law. “Only when we can keep track of everyone who comes across our borders, both when arriving in the United States and during their stays here, can we expect to realize optimum safety and security.”
The GAO report highlighted long-standing problems that are being fixed by a new automated tracking system that started going into effect in January, said Homeland Security spokesman Bill Strassberger.
Earlier this week, Homeland Security signed a contract that could be worth up to $10 billion for a private company to try to oversee a new tracking system for foreign visitors. The tracking system electronically logs foreigners entering and exiting 115 airports and 14 seaports, but doesn’t yet cover land border crossings.
GAO auditors pointed out that in one year alone, 2001, the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s poor tracking system — which didn’t note when aliens left America — showed that 7 million people weren’t logged as leaving on time. Most of those people did leave on time, but their exits weren’t noted because of problems in the system, the report said. The INS has become part of the Homeland Security Department.
There probably are 4 to 6 million overstaying aliens, estimated James Hollifield, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the author of several books on immigration. Most of those people are trying to change their status to legal, while others are trying to stay illegal and work in the underground economy, he said.
“A huge number of overstays are inadvertent,” said Marshall Fitz, the associate advocacy director for American Immigration Lawyers Association. “The security risk angle of this is something of a red herring.”
“The size of that huge population (of overstays) offers a camouflage for people who are involved in international terrorism,” said Jack Martin, special projects director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which tries to restrict immigration.