In the wake of terrorist activity in Europe and mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 people dead and 22 wounded, some may be wondering: Are we tracking those in the US on Visas, and if so, how?

The answer, despite Federal laws that require tracking visa entrants, is the U.S. Doesn’t Know How Many Foreign Visitors Overstay Visas.

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.

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.

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 — which now would mean 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.

In 2004, lawmakers passed legislation that required Homeland Security officials to accelerate their efforts to create an automated biometric entry and exit data system.

Congress repeated its demand for a biometric exit system in 2007 and set a deadline for 2009. But the deadline passed, with the department putting into place only a handful of pilot programs.

Since then, the department has continued to struggle to meet this requirement. A 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office said the Department of Homeland Security had more than one million “unmatched” arrival records, meaning that those records could not be checked against other information showing that the individuals had left the country, but again the department could not offer a precise number.

Despite the call by some lawmakers for an exit system, airports and the airline industry have balked because it would cost airlines $3 billion, according to a 2013 Homeland Security estimate. The Department of Homeland Security issued regulations in 2008 requiring airports to collect biometric exit information, but carriers have largely ignored the regulation, and there have been no sanctions.

Questions Abound

  • What will the US do if someone doesn’t leave who is supposed to? Ignore the problem hoping it goes away? Issue alerts? Round up the illegals and deport them?
  • What about the presumed 4.4 million already here on expired visas?  
  • Is the US prepared for a Trump-like deportation proposal?
  • Is the US comfortable with an Obama-like welcome with no background checks?

Uncomfortable Questions

The above questions are uncomfortable, but must be asked.

Unless there is a comprehensive and workable overall plan, a biometric program will not do much in and of itself but add to expenses and increase delays.

This visa issue further compounds the issue of illegal aliens. Hillary prefers to label the illegals “undocumented”.

Those here with expired visas were documented, and they entered the US legally. Both groups are now here illegally, so let’s not mince words. The term “illegal” applies in both cases.

Political correctness aside, those who wish to differentiate might consider the phrase “illegal, undocumented alien” as the most accurate description for those who entered the US illegally, with no documents.

Popularity of Trump

Part of the popularity of Donald Trump is that he at least has some semblance of plan. That he doesn’t care who his plan offends likely helps his campaign. Whether or not the plan is truly workable doesn’t matter for now.

The primary alternative seems to be blanket amnesty for those already here combined with no background checks on refugees coming in.

Is there a middle ground somewhere? or not?

Mike “Mish” Shedlock