By Jim Kouri
This past week, the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, chaired by Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI), held a hearing entitled “From the 9/11 Hijackers to Amine el-Khalifi: Terrorists and the Visa Overstay Problem,” according to officials from the National Association of Chiefs of Police (NACOP).
“This important hearing examined the track record of the Department of Homeland Security to secure the U.S. borders through the passport and visa system. It also addressed the challenges U.S. law enforcement faces in identifying individuals who overstay their visas — specifically those individuals who entered the U.S. prior to implementation of post-9/11 reforms,” said NACOP President Emeritus Dennis Ray Martin, former police chief from Saginaw, Michigan.
According to a DOJ press statement released last month, a 29 year-old Moroccan man, Amine el-Khalifi, was arrested by FBI agents for plotting to detonate a bomb during a suicide attack on the U.S. Capitol Building. El-Khalifi entered the United States in 1999 on a tourist visa that expired later that year, but remained undetected in the United States illegally since that time.
“This hearing gives [committee] members the opportunity to examine how gaps and vulnerabilities in the visa and immigration system have been addressed in the 10 years since 9/11, and review what deficiencies in tracking visa overstays remain,” said Rep. Miller in a press statement.
A Government Accountability Office study reveals that U.S. border security efforts have been focused on securing the nation’s northern and southern borders. However, more than 40 percent of all illegal aliens do not sneak across the northern and southern borders, but enter the U.S. legally through the front door and then never leave in spite of their visa expiration.
“The recent case of would-be terrorist el-Khalifi, the radical Islamist who allegedly attempted to conduct a suicide attack on the U.S. Capitol, is not the first time terrorists have taken advantage of a weak visa system. In fact, he follows a number of terrorists, including several of the 9/11 hijackers, who overstayed their visas and went on to conduct terror attacks,” said Chief Martin.
“There’s so much that must be done to ensure the security of the U.S. visa system, including the ability to identify and promptly remove those who overstay their visa. What is especially troubling is that terrorists such as el-Khalifi lived illegally in the U.S. for more than 13 years before being identified by law enforcement,” said New York City police officer Edith Miranda, who has worked on anti-terrorism operations within the vulnerable NYC subway system.
“This hearing examined the progress made since 2003 in identifying overstays, especially those who pose national security and public safety threats. It will also examiner the Department of Homeland Security plans to implement a robust visa exit system that will prevent terrorists from successfully exploiting the visa process,” said Rep. Miller.
In May 2011, the GAO reported to Congress that DHS implemented the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), required by the 9/11 Act, and took steps to minimize the burden associated with this new program requirement.
DHS requires applicants for Visa Waiver Program travel to submit biographical information and answers to eligibility questions through ESTA prior to travel. In developing and implementing ESTA, DHS made efforts to minimize the burden imposed by the new requirement, according to the GAO analysts.
For example, although travelers formerly filled out a Visa Waiver Program application form for each journey to the United States, ESTA approval is generally valid for 2 years. However, the GAO reported that DHS had not fully evaluated security risks related to the small percentage of Visa Waiver Program travelers without verified ESTA approval.
In 2010, airlines complied with the requirement to verify ESTA approval for almost 98 percent of Visa Waiver Program passengers prior to boarding, but the remaining 2 percent — about 364,000 travelers — traveled under the program without verified ESTA approval.
In May 2011, GAO reported that DHS had not yet completed a review of these cases to know to what extent they pose a risk to the program and recommended that it establish time frames for regular review. DHS concurred and has since established procedures to review a sample of noncompliant passengers on a quarterly basis.
In order to meet 9/11 Act requirements, DHS requires that Visa Waiver Program countries enter into three information-sharing agreements with the United States; however, only 21 of the 36 countries had fully complied with this requirement as of November 2011, and many of the signed agreements have not been implemented.