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Exit trackingDHS to propose visa exit tracking system

Published 9 March 2012

DHS is in the midst of completing its plan to establish a biometric exit system for immigrants when they leave the United States; the plan has been devised amid growing concerns about terrorists who entered the country legally, but continue to stay long after their visas had expired

Biometric visa will aid in tracking those who overstay their visa // Source: biometrics4you.com

DHS is in the midst of completing its plan to establish a biometric exit system for immigrants when they leave the United States.

Testifying before Congress on Tuesday, John Cohen, DHS’ deputy counterterrorism coordinator, said the agency was within “weeks” of presenting its final plan to lawmakers.

Cohen’s statements come amid growing concerns about terrorists who entered the country legally, but continue to stay long after their visas had expired. Most recently, Amine El Khalifi, a resident Alexandria, Virginia who had been living in the United States for twelve years on an expired visa, was arrested for attempting to detonate a suicide vest at the nation’s capitol. When El Khalifi went to press the trigger, the vest ultimately turned out to be a dud, as FBI investigators posing as terrorists had given it to him.

Following the 9/11 attacks, lawmakers and security officials have pushed for the creation of an exit system and DHS secretary Janet Napolitano agrees, but maintained that implementing a system would be too costly.

Representative Candice Miller (R – Michigan), who led Tuesday’s hearing, stressed that the latest attempted attack on the capital stems from “a long line of terrorists, including several of the 9/11 hijackers, who overstayed their visa and went on to conduct terror attacks.”

As evidence, Representative Miller said thirty-six people who overstayed their visas have been convicted of terrorism related charges since 2001.

“We have to recognize that we do have this problem,” Miller said. “The truth is, in the 40 percentile of all the illegal (immigrants) are in this country on expired visas. They came in right through the front door.”

It is estimated that as many as half of the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States entered the country legally, but never left.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency routinely scans through its visa records to identify people who have overstayed their welcome and deport those deemed to be potential threats. According to Cohen, more than 37,000 people who overstayed their visas were deported in the last two years.

Without a biometric system in place, identifying immigrants who have overstayed their visas has proven to be a particular challenge. El Khalifi’s visa expired in 1999, yet despite multiple brushes with the law from 2002 to 2006, his immigration status never came to the attention of federal authorities.

“It’s very difficult to find those individuals, and those individuals aren’t priorities until they commit a crime,” Julia Myers Wood, the former head of ICE from 2006 to 2008, told USA Today.

Programs like Secure Communities, which automatically sends a detained individuals fingerprints to DHS and the FBI, that would have flagged El Khalifi were not yet in place at the time of his arrests.

James Ziglar, the head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 2001, before it became a part of DHS in 2002, said following 9/11 immigration officials sought to locate immigrants believed to be a national security threat, but illegal immigrants like El Khalifi, who simply overstayed his visa, would not have been a priority.

“We were certainly focused on trying to find bad people and connecting the dots with the Department of State and their visa records,” Ziglar said. “I doubt very seriously [El Khalifi] would have come up on the radar. He might have if you kept drilling down further and further just because of where he was from. But he would not have been, I think, an earlier target, just because there were more suspicious types.”