- - Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Lincoln Memorial, the Washington National Cathedral and other monuments in the nation’s capital have fallen victim to lax immigration policies. Police charged a 58-year-old Chinese woman with a paint can, who wasn’t supposed to be in the country, with vandalism.

Federal immigration officials say only that Jiamei Tian came to the United States on a short-term tourist visa, which expired about the time the paint flew. Ms. Tian was living in a park downtown Washington two blocks from the White House when she was arrested, and she has been confined to a halfway house. She got her name in the newspapers, but she’s far from alone in overstaying her welcome.

The Government Accountability Office says the Homeland Security Department has lost track of more than 1 million foreigners here on tourist, work and student visas. The executive branch is required to tell Congress how many people have overstayed their visas, but it never does because nobody in the government knows. The current policy amounts to, “You can check in any time, but you don’t have to leave.”

The government is woefully behind on deploying a new monitoring system to better track the comings and — even more important — goings of foreign visitors. A 1996 immigration-reform bill required the government to create a departure tracking system, a request repeated in 2004. Nearly a decade later, the Department of Homeland Security “has not yet fulfilled the 2004 statutory requirement to implement a biometric exit capability,” GAO investigators found. Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano told the Senate earlier this year that the department would report the progress of the development of the new system in December, but the GAO says Homeland Security officials don’t yet know how they intend to go about building such a system or making the required report. No one should expect to see anything substantial until 2016 at the earliest.

The government must get its act together soon, because it’s about more than thwarting petty vandals armed with a can of lime-green spray paint. At least six of the 19 terrorists of Sept. 11 did their evil work on expired visas. Rep. Candice S. Miller, Michigan Republican, told a House Homeland Security subcommittee last year that since 2001, 36 convicted terrorists “came right through our front door on visas and then used the tools of our freedom to murder our fellow Americans.”

The GAO report couldn’t come at a less awkward time for backers of comprehensive immigration reform, since the Senate’s Gang of Eight bill mandates the legalization of illegals and orders their path to citizenship to begin as soon as the legislation becomes law, even though the entry-and-exit controls won’t be in place for years, if ever.

Instead of taking the Senate’s omnibus approach to immigration reform, the House should resolve problems one at a time. The government must get the entry-exit program under control before it throws the nation’s doors open wider. With scrubbing, green paint can be removed and the damage undone; the consequence of immigration reform done in haste would be irreversible.

The Washington Times