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U.S. Doesn’t Know How Many Foreign Visitors Overstay Visas

The New York Times

Friday, January 1, 2016

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…

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 country. 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.”

The 9/11 Commission report called the establishment of an entry and exit biometric system “fundamental to intercepting terrorists” trying to enter the United States because it would allow law enforcement officials to determine if a traveler had overstayed a visa.

KEYWORDS: THERESA BROWN