Tags: visa | immigration | tracking

U.S. Still Can't Track Foreigner Departures

By Dan Weil   |   Monday, 12 Oct 2009 01:07 PM

U.S. authorities still can’t determine when foreign visitors leave our shores, despite the spending of $1 billion from Congress to monitor foreigners’ movements.

The issue took on grave concern last week, as Hosam Maher Husein faced charges of planning to destroy a Dallas skyscraper. The 19-year-old Jordanian had overstayed his tourist visa.

In 2008, 2.9 million foreign visitors with temporary visas like Smadi’s came to the United States but never officially left, immigration officials told The New York Times. They believe that several hundred thousand of them overstayed their visas.

Of the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country, about 40 percent entered on legal visas and overstayed, the officials maintain.

Now Republicans and Democrats want the Homeland Security Department to finish a universal electronic exit monitoring system.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R.-Tex., told The Times that the Smadi case “points to a real need for an entry and exit system if we are serious about reducing illegal immigration.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he would try to allocate money from the economic stimulus program to create an exit monitoring system.

To be sure, immigration officials have made great strides in improving their ability to monitor foreign visitors since the Sept. 11 tragedy.

But Homeland Security officials say universal exit monitoring isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap. The U.S.’ huge land borders, with more than 1 million crossings per day, make check-ups difficult.

Too strict an exit plan could stifle trade and hurt border cities.

On the plus side, since 2004, homeland security officials have implemented systems to examine all foreigners as they arrive. Customs officers take fingerprints and digital photographs of visitors from most countries and check them against law enforcement watch lists.

But officials say a series of experiments since 2004 haven’t yet produced an exit monitoring system that would work for the whole nation. The current system relies on departing foreigners to turn in a paper stub when they exit.

Immigration issues are clearly a major focus in Washington now. The Obama administration announced last week that it will review procedures used for detaining the approximately 380,000 illegal immigrants a year.

The White House is considering using converted hotels and nursing homes to change the current prison-based system into one tiered according to the risk posed by individual detainees.

"We accepted that we were going to continue to have -- and increase, potentially -- the number of detainees,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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