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U.S. can't track foreigners with expired visas

Mike Madden
Republic Washington Bureau
Nov. 13, 2006 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - Fly into the United States for a quick visit from a foreign country and you'll have your picture and fingerprints taken and your passport examined so officials can make sure you are who you say you are.

Fly home and chances are no one will even know.

Five years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the government is still developing a system to track whether foreigners have left the country when their visas expire. Without such a system in place, the Department of Homeland Security is unable to tell when people stay illegally.

Experts say that as many as 4 million of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the country may have overstayed visas. The rest sneaked across borders. At least four of the 9/11 hijackers had visas that had expired at the time of the attacks.

The scale of the potential problem is daunting. Nearly 300 million foreigners entered the United States at land borders in fiscal 2005. About 86 million entries were processed at airports.

"We just really have no idea where the problems are," said Jessica Vaughan, a senior analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies and a frequent critic of Homeland Security's work in establishing a tracking system for foreigners.

"When we have that type of information, we can focus our enforcement efforts on the problem categories or groups or nationalities, and then spend less time screening everyone else that's low-risk. Right now, we're not making informed decisions."

Authorities register foreign travelers when they enter the U.S., using a system called US-VISIT. Foreigners have their fingerprints scanned electronically to prove their identity, and computers check their names against databases of known terrorists and criminals.

Mexican citizens using "laser visa" border crossing cards, and most Canadians are exempt. Others, including citizens of countries who aren't required to get visas in advance before coming here for a visit, get checked into the system on arrival.

But only travelers leaving from 12 airports and three seaports get checked out when they leave. US-VISIT officials hope to expand that pilot program to cover all 78 U.S. airports with international departures by the end of next year. Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix is not in the pilot program.

Congress has budgeted $362 million for US-VISIT for next year but won't release $200 million of it until officials submit a comprehensive plan for the system. So far, the system has cost about $1 billion.

The plan may not include expanding US-VISIT technology to land borders, which could cost billions of dollars, acting Director Robert Mocny said.

But Homeland Security is exploring whether to make cards with fingerprint readers in them that could be used to comply with US-VISIT requirements at land borders if Congress and the Bush administration decide to put the system in there.

Some changes are coming at airports before the exit system is expanded, Mocny said. Checkout kiosks may be put in more visible areas, and officials may make more of an effort to inform foreigners that they're required to use the system.

"Because we didn't have something like departure controls, we kind of have to make this stuff up," he said.

At Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, one of the 12 testing sites, US-VISIT departure kiosks sit near the security line for international departures and near the gates where passengers board their flights. All foreigners departing the airport must check out using ATM-size machines that scan their passports and print out receipts.

"It's got my name on the top!" Jack Holmes, 17, said as the machine read his passport last week. A high school student from Cambridge, England, Holmes said the system was "pretty simple" to use.

Many foreign passengers didn't know they had to use the system until airport officials directed them to it, though few had any complaints about the US-VISIT requirements. Departure controls are common in other nations.

"We usually just leave a small piece of paper" with immigration officials, said Hjorturmr Hannesson, a Reykjavik, Iceland, resident returning home after a visit. "Sometimes, I have forgotten this piece of paper."

That theoretically leaves him open to charges of failing to comply with the conditions of his entry to the country.

Eventually, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials may be able to get computerized updates indicating whether foreigners have overstayed their visas, based on a listing of who has and hasn't checked out of the country.

Databases like US-VISIT helped ICE agents make 1,700 arrests in fiscal 2006, according to Homeland Security statistics.

But critics say the system should have been operating already.

"I don't think most of the Congress understands that the problem of unauthorized migration is one that occurs beyond the Southwest border," said Deborah Meyers, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. "If they were to pay more attention to that, I think they would be more interested in the exit system."

Reach the reporter at or 1-(202)-906-8123.