The federal government doesn’t investigate 99 percent of illegal immigrants who entered the country legally but overstayed their visas, Homeland Security officials told the Senate on Wednesday, exposing what critics said was a giant loophole in immigration enforcement and national security.
Those whose names pop up as security threats or serious criminals draw scrutiny, but most of the rest of the more than 500,000 visitors who didn’t leave when their time was up in 2015 were deemed nonpriorities. While some left on their own, analysts said it’s possible that hundreds of thousands remained in the country, dissolving into the shadows with the rest of the illegal immigrant population.
Among those who overstayed are thousands from countries connected with terrorism: 219 illegals from Afghanistan, 681 from Iraq, 564 from Iran, 56 from Libya, 1,435 from Pakistan, 440 from Syria and 219 from Yemen in fiscal year 2015 alone.
“This is the way the system gets eroded. This is where public confidence is being destroyed. This is how we’re sending a message to the world that you can get away with it,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and chairman of the immigration subcommittee, which held a hearing exploring the new numbers, released late Tuesday by Homeland Security.
According to the report, almost all of the 45 million temporary visas issued to business and tourist travelers between Oct. 1, 2014, and Sept. 30, 2015, were honored — meaning the visitors left on time.
But the 1.17 percent defiance rate still meant some 527,127 individuals overstayed, and, as of three months later, more than 400,000 of them were still likely in the U.S. When combined with previous years’ overstays, the numbers “must be in the millions,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican.
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Meanwhile, the government deported only about 2,500 visa overstays last year, and has only about 3,000 active cases — accounting for just a small fraction of the problem.
“Probably the chances are that in our prioritization scheme, we will not get to those individuals unless they rise to the level that it meets either the national security, the criminal or the secretary’s priorities,” said Craig C. Healy, assistant director of National Security Investigations at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
At least five of the hijackers involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack had arrived on legal visas but overstayed, leaving them in the country to carry out their plot.
The new overstay report is more than a decade overdue, and is still incomplete. It does not cover major visa categories for students or guest workers — both of which analysts said are likely to be even worse than the tourism and business visas, because students and guest workers often put down roots over the course of years spent in the U.S.
Homeland Security officials said those other overstay figures will come sometime next year.
In the meantime, the department is struggling with how to even measure who’s left the country.
Congress two decades ago demanded the department implement biometric checks at both entry and exit from the country for foreigner visitors. While the checks are in place on arrival, there is still no biometric exit system, and the government relies on passenger information from airlines to complete its checks.
That leaves the system susceptible to errors or fraud that a biometric system, based on fingerprints, could solve. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said it’s time the administration figure out a solution, particularly after Congress recently dedicated $1 billion from visa fees to be spent on the problem.
John Wagner, deputy assistant commissioner at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the hiccup is in trying to find a way to do the checks without disrupting international travel at airports.
He said most airports don’t keep space at departure gates to screen outgoing travelers, and said they are trying to experiment with hand-held devices or other ways to get to passengers as they leave.
Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the high rate of overstays, coupled with the surge of Central Americans coming across the southwest border, likely means the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. is rising.
She also said policymakers should be worried about the high rate of overstays in visitors from visa-waiver countries — those that don’t require a specific visa or the in-person interview that’s required for most travelers.
Nearly 3 percent of visitors from Greece — a visa-waiver country — overstayed, according to the report.
The worst offenders, though, were still regular visa countries such as Djibouti and Bhutan, where about a quarter of all visitors overstayed in 2015. Ms. Vaughan said that’s an indication that the State Department has been too lax in issuing visas in those countries.
Tourist and business visas are supposed to be issued only to those who appear to have ties to their home countries and are likely to return.
Japan had one of the best compliance rates, with only a fifth of a percent of the more than 3 million visitors in 2015 breaking the terms of their visas.
Vatican City was among the best, with all 22 of its citizens who came on tourist or business visas leaving by the time their passes expired.