The question from the congressman to the Obama administration official was straightforward enough: How many foreign visitors overstay their visas every year?
The reply was simple too, but not in a satisfying way. “We don’t know,” the official said.
The testy exchange during a recent congressional hearing between Representative Mark Meadows, Republican of North Carolina, and Alan Bersin, the assistant secretary for international affairs at the Department of Homeland Security, highlights what some law enforcement officials call a critical weakness in the United States foreign visa program.
The issue has taken on added urgency as part of a broader examination of immigration policy following the mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 people dead and 22 wounded. Tashfeen Malik, one of the attackers, was granted entry to the United States under a K-1 visa, also known as a fiancé visa. Her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, was an American-born citizen. Both died in a shootout with the police. While Ms. Malik did not overstay her visa, the attack added to fears that a terrorist could exploit gaps in the system.
Nearly 20 years ago, Congress passed a law requiring the federal government to develop a system to track people who overstayed their visas. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, an entry and exit tracking system was seen as a vital national security and counterterrorism tool, and the 9/11 Commission recommended that the Department of Homeland Security complete a system “as soon as possible.” Two of the 9/11 hijackers, Satam al-Suqami and Nawaf al-Hazmi, had overstayed their visas.
Since then, the federal government has spent millions of dollars on the effort, yet officials can only roughly estimate the number of people in the United States illegally after overstaying visas.
Officials blame a lack of technology to conduct more advanced collection of data like iris scans, resistance from the airline and tourism industry because of cost, and questions about the usefulness of tracking people exiting the country as a counterterrorism measure.
Some experts also note that a sizable number of those who overstayed their visas are highly skilled workers who come under the H-1B program or are foreign students.
One widely cited statistic, from a 1997 report by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, puts the number of people who overstay their visas at 40 percent, about 4.4 million of the estimated 11 million undocumented residents in the United States. Numerous lawmakers, including the Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, have used that figure when trying to describe the scope of the problem. But even that number has never been conclusively substantiated.
Federal agencies have not provided a new report to Congress on overstays since 1994, despite the congressional mandate.
In early 2013, Janet Napolitano, then the secretary of Homeland Security, testified before Congress that the agency planned to issue a report on overstay rates by December 2013. The agency did not follow through because officials said they did not have confidence in the quality of the data. Mr. Bersin said last month that the report would be issued in the next six months.
Many members of Congress and some law enforcement officials worry that terrorists could exploit the visa program because the United States does not routinely collect biometric information — fingerprints, iris scans and photographs that can be used for facial recognition — of people leaving the county. Nearly three dozen countries, including many in Europe, Asia and Africa, collect such information.
“U.S. airports and other entry and exit points were never designed with departure control in mind,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, the director of Immigration Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington and a Department of Homeland Security official under President George W. Bush. “If we want to do that it’s going to mean building a lot more infrastructure.”
Read more: NY Times