The federal government is approving ever-more business and tourism visitors to enter the U.S., raising questions about whether agencies are equipped to approve them, monitor them and make sure they leave when they are supposed to.
Much of the focus in the immigration debate is on those who come to the U.S. for a work or education program but don't leave when their visas expire. Those so-called visa overstays could account for as much as 40 percent of illegal immigrants.
But congressional Republicans say there's a small but growing problem among tourists and short-term business visitors, many of whom never have to get a visa in the first place.
The government in 2012 lost track of at least 14,010 people who came on non-immigrant visitor's passes, according to testimony from the Department of Homeland Security, prepared for delivery Thursday at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security. A copy of the testimony was reviewed by The Washington Times.
Critics say the increasing number of visitors raises concerns about how strictly the U.S. is making its checks.
"I have serious questions regarding fraud in the immigration process," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican and subcommittee chairman. "The procedural problems and lack of enforcement relating to the issuance of Border Crossing Cards and B1/B2 visas is especially concerning. It is imperative that we examine potential flaws within the system and find solutions that ensure a more effective process."
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., the federal government has grappled with how to increase security while still leaving the country open to business visitors and tourists.
One solution was to expand use of Border Crossing Cards, which allow temporary visitors from Mexico to enter the U.S. more easily, and to do business or visit near the border.
The State Department approved 1.3 million BCCs in fiscal 2013, and approved another 5.8 million non-immigrant B visas, which apply to business and pleasure trips.
The State Department and U.S. Customs and Border Protection say they run a number of different checks designed to keep out dangerous visitors.
The Consular Lookout and Support System maintains a list of 27 million people deemed ineligible for visas or for whom the government has derogatory information that would warrant a deeper review.
A new system, known as Patriot, checks applications against Homeland Security databases. Patriot is undergoing testing at 20 foreign service posts.
And at the border, CBP checks a "visa hot list" to see if people who were approved for a permit should still be admitted.
Still, the government has to balance security with requests for travel, and long delays in processing visas have forced federal officials to come up with other plans.
The government added more countries to the visa waiver program, which allows some visitors to travel to the U.S. without getting a visa. There are now 37 countries whose citizens can qualify for short-term travel without a visa.
In 2012, the State and Homeland Security departments also began a pilot program waiving in-person interviews for visa applicants they deemed low-risk.
China, Brazil and India have fueled demand for temporary visitor permits, the State Department said.
Overall, 66 million tourists visited the U.S. in 2012, generating $168 billion in revenue — up 10 percent from the previous year.
This year could be even better. Through July, the Commerce Department reported a 9 percent jump in tourist spending compared to 2012.
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