Nearly half of the 10 million to 12 million illegal aliens now in the United States entered the country legally, but never left.
Carrying visas and U.S.-approved border crossing cards, they were inspected by immigration officers at 300 sea, air and land ports of entry and many — according to a year-old U.S. Customs and Border Protection policy — were told to “Have a nice day.”
A little-noticed study by the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center says 45 percent of America’s illegal alien population — 4.5 million to 6 million — carried legally issued border crossing cards for short-term visits or business and tourist visas for longer but temporary stays.
Ultimately, they became what the government refers to as “overstayers,” hiding in plain sight, working, sending their children to school and using health care services.
“Although Congress authorized several initiatives to track foreign visitors following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and then again after the September 11 attacks, the U.S. government currently has no means of determining whether all the foreign nationals admitted for temporary stays actually leave the country,” said the center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group.
The influx continues to stream into America unchecked despite efforts by President Bush to send 6,000 National Guard troops to better secure border areas between the ports of entry, where Congress will spend $1.2 billion to hire and station more U.S. Border Patrol agents.
Michael Cutler, a retired U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) senior agent, said the government is spending billions to secure the border but has “failed miserably” at interior enforcement.
“We are not doing enough to make sure these people leave the country when they are supposed to and that impacts significantly on national security,” he said. “Remember, all of the 19 al Qaeda hijackers who slammed jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon entered the country legally.
“There is no high-tech solution to the problem. We have to hire personnel to go out and arrest these people,” he said, noting that the government has only about 3,000 agents nationwide to enforce immigration laws in the nation’s interior. “We are supposed to be dealing with this issue, but five years after the attacks, we’re not doing enough.”
The Pew report said that 4 million to 5.5 million illegal aliens entered legally through established ports of entry with tourist or business visas and that 250,000 to 500,000 used border crossing cards.
Steven Camarota, director of research at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, said the government has failed to enforce existing immigration laws by denying visas to those deemed likely to overstay — including persons who are unmarried, have no property, are unemployed or have lived outside of their home countries for a while.
“One such person who fits that category and was in this country legally with a visa was Mohamed Atta, leader of the September 11 hijackers,” he said. “We have the ability based on past experience to weed out people with a high probability of overstaying, but it’s not being done.
“The government, under tremendous pressure to issue these visas, has never thought about developing any kind of enforcement strategy for those who overstay their temporary visas,” he said.
Homeland Security has sought to target overstays through a program called US-VISIT, a biometric verification system that scans the fingers of each foreign national entering the country and matches them against government databases to verify that the visa holder is the person to whom a visa was issued.
The program, begun in 2004, is in place at 115 airports, 15 seaports and in the secondary inspection areas of 154 land ports of entry, although Mexicans and Canadians entering the country with border crossing cards are not required to complete an arrival-departure record, known as Form I-94, unless they are requesting an extended stay.
US-VISIT exit procedures are operating at 12 airports and two seaports.
The program has identified many terrorists, criminals and other undesirable foreign visitors, but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Homeland Security agency responsible for interior enforcement, has only a limited number of personnel assigned to that task — and most of them have been assigned to find criminal aliens, migrants who were ordered deported but disappeared and those who pose national-security threats.
The Pew report said that when fully implemented, US-VISIT is supposed to provide computerized records of arrivals and departures and a means of checking the identity of visitors with biometric data. In the meantime, it said, “only handwritten forms track some foreign visitors.”
“In effect, the government has a pretty good idea of how many people come into the country if they fill out one of the forms, but it does not have a full count of how many leave,” the report said.
Mr. Cutler, who headed major drug investigations for INS for two decades, said, “Even if the system was working flawlessly at all the U.S. ports — logging the entry and exit of foreign nationals and generating many investigative leads — who’s going to respond if they don’t hire an adequate number of agents? It’s like having a sophisticated 911 system but no cars to send if people call for help.”