- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

Immigration inspectors at U.S. ports of entry sometimes return stolen or forged travel documents to those using them so that they can leave the country, U.S. officials say.

The procedure, which senior homeland security officials say happens “very rarely,” is one of a series of weaknesses in the nation’s visa-waiver program identified by Clark Kent Ervin, inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security.

Mr. Ervin said that when inspectors find people using stolen, forged or altered passports, they sometimes have no choice but to allow them to use the documents to return to their countries of departure.

“It does happen,” said C. Stewart Verdery Jr., assistant secretary of policy and planning at the Homeland Security Department.

“But,” he added, “it happens very rarely. And when it does, we give the passport to the airline, not to the traveler.”

Officials, however, would not say how often the documents were returned.

Under the visa-waiver program, the United States has reciprocal arrangements with 27 countries, whose citizens are allowed to enter the country without a visa for up to 90 days for business or pleasure. About 13 million travelers entered the United States last year under the program.

Charles Showalter, president of the National Homeland Security Council — a labor union that represents 18,000 immigration personnel in the new department — said the department laid down the procedure.

He said that cases of “non-escorted removal” were different from full-fledged deportation.

If the U.S. attorney declined prosecution, he said, the traveler was put back on a plane. The forged or stolen documents were given back to the air crew.

“At some point before landing,” he said, “those documents will be returned, so that the person can use them to re-enter the country they came from.”

He said the air crew had a legal responsibility to inform the immigration authorities in the destination country that the traveler had been denied entry to the United States.

Mr. Showalter said it is rare now for attorneys to decline prosecution. “Before September 11, if someone was caught [trying to fraudulently enter the country], they would just say, ‘Whoops, you caught me, I’m going home.’

“There’s very little of that now,” he said.

The practice of returning documents is a particular issue in the visa-waiver program, because travelers from those countries are more likely to be subjected to non-escorted removal. Arrivals from so-called “nations of interest,” such as countries in the Middle East, are more likely to be prosecuted if found with forged or fraudulent documents.

The alternative to returning the documents, Mr. Verdery said, would be to keep the traveler in detention, in a legal limbo that could take years to resolve, at the expense of U.S. taxpayers.

“We are working to deal with this,” he said, “but it is complicated. It is international law.”

Mr. Showalter said it is a question of jurisdiction.

Once a person is excluded from the United States, he said, he or she is outside the reach of U.S. law.

“We have no jurisdiction and cannot enforce foreign laws,” he said.

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