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August 12, 2013

America’s visa mess

Dear Harold,

Our “Open Letter” to Congress on immigration reform insists that Congress clean up our broken visa system. Like our porous southern border, the visa system is an open door being exploited by potential terrorists.

Please let the congressional leadership, especially in the House of Representatives, know that you and many other Americans expect “reform” to protect America’s national security first. This includes fixing the visa system.Please add your name to our “Open Letter.”

The recent CQ Homeland Security article below documents just how badly broken the visa system is.

DHS Total for Visa Overstays Climbs to 1 Million
By Rob Margetta, CQ Staff

Two years ago, the Department of Homeland Security undertook an initiative to cut down on its backlog of reports of illegal immigrants who had overstayed their visas, discovering that almost half of them had left the country. But those reports have continued to accrue, and the department’s case load has swelled up to 1 million, according to a new report. The findings — along with the fact that the department has no plans to find or deport those 1 million people — could figure into the current immigration debate.

DHS’s original backlog was 1.6 million cases, although immigration experts note that number doesn’t account for the total number of overstays — some have been in the country for decades, and the commonly accepted estimate is that 40 percent of the roughly 11.5 million illegal immigrants came in on visas.

Through reviews, the department managed to cut that backlog by about 863,000 records, finding that the people in those cases had left, either before their visas expired or after. The review also helped the department reclassify some cases. By looking at the records that remained after the purge, DHS found 1,901 people it identified as targets for enforcement because they could pose potential security risks.

According to the Government Accountability Office, DHS has continued to review incoming records, a step that should help prevent another backlog. But even with that review process in place, the number of total cases where the U.S. has a report of someone coming in on a visa, but no corresponding report of them leaving, hit 1 million in June.

At a time when immigration enforcement is a topic of contentious debate on Capitol Hill, the GAO report contained a few potentially controversial points. For one, the overstay records have a direct link to the department’s use of prosecutorial discretion in deciding to focus its resources on security threats and criminals, rather than those whose only violated immigration law. The practice has angered Republicans.

“DHS’s automated reviews have not produced evidence that the subjects of these 1 million unmatched arrival records meet its enforcement priorities,” the report said. “Thus, DHS has not manually reviewed them and does not plan to take enforcement action against these individuals.”

While 44 percent of DHS unmatched arrival records traveled to the country on tourist visas, about 43 percent were tourists coming in under the Visa Waiver Program, which allows people from 37 approved countries to make trips to the U.S. of less than 90 days without a visa.

The GAO noted that while DHS has a statutory requirement to produce overstay estimates for Congress, it has never done so, saying it is not confident enough about the data. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano promised to report rates by December, but the department hasn’t done the work to make its data reliable enough that it could be used for policy-making purposes, the GAO said.

The report also touched on a long-standing dispute between lawmakers and DHS. It recommended that if the department is to produce more reliable overstay data, it should implement a biometric exit capability to collect the fingerprints and other information of foreigners as they leave the country. Lawmakers have for years demanded that DHS institute such a system, to no avail, and Republicans have made a biometric exit requirement part of their demands for immigration legislation.

Napolitano has said she has focused on first building a “biographical” system that would use data such as travel records to prove that someone has left the country, calling it more cost-efficient. The report says that DHS has a high-level plan for biometric exit, but hasn’t outlined concrete steps to make it happen.

Michigan Republican Candice S. Miller, chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, issued a statement this week calling the GAO report “a strong reminder that to completely secure the nation we need to look beyond the traditional borders.”

“Solving the challenge of tracking down and removing those who overstay their visa is critical to our national security,” she said.


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