- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

The Department of Homeland Security can’t properly track when foreign visitors leave the United States, according to the General Accounting Office, which said a “substantial” amount of illegal immigration is attributable to overstays.

The GAO, Congress’ investigative division, released a report yesterday saying those who overstayed their visits to the country accounted for 27 percent of illegal aliens, according to one survey.

“Overstays who settle here in large numbers can affect domestic security because they (like other illegal immigrants) are able to obtain jobs and security badges with fraudulent identity documents, thus gaining access to critical infrastructure locations, such as airports, or special events, like the Super Bowl,” the GAO said. “For example, overstays with fraudulently obtained badges were found at 25 of 26 airports examined.”

Homeland Security officials estimated there were 2.3 million visa overstays in January 2000, but the GAO said that number is low and that the department lacks the ability to track the others.

One particular problem is that Canadian citizens staying less than six months and Mexican citizens with border-crossing cards staying near the border for less than 72 hours can enter the country without filing a form I-94, which could be used to track overstayers.

During fiscal 1999 to 2003, the State Department issued 6.4 million Mexican border-crossing cards, the report said.

“Although most long-term overstays appear to be motivated by economic opportunities, a few overstays have been identified as terrorists or involved in terrorist-related activities. Notably, some of the September 11 hijackers had overstayed,” the GAO said.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who requested the study, said he was “deeply frustrated” that so many illegal aliens from countries that sponsor terrorism remain in the United States even after having been identified as overstayers.

“Despite the fact Congress takes this security issue very seriously and has authorized hiring thousands more immigration enforcement personnel since 9/11, little progress has been made by [the Department of Homeland Security] on this security threat,” he said.

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller did not return a phone call, and neither Justice or Homeland Security (DHS) submitted comments to the GAO.

But DHS spokesman Bill Strassberger said yesterday many of the investigation’s conclusions about visa overstays are based on numbers and reports from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, an agency that no longer exists.

“A lot of the numbers it looks at are pre-Department of Homeland Security information,” he said. “We would not disagree with those conclusions because, pre-DHS, we were working with some really obsolete systems.”

By the end of next year, the department will have the US-VISIT system fully up and running. It will require foreign visitors to be fingerprinted upon entry and give authorities a centralized system to track their arrivals and departures.

“The problems they identified are really historical and, if anything, I see it validating the efforts DHS is making,” he said.

He also said in the case of the Mexicans with border-crossing cards, in order to obtain the cards they have been checked to make sure they aren’t security or overstay risks.

“They’re, in essence, pre-screened before they even get a chance to enter the United States,” he said.

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