Scof­flaws of­ten from ter­ror states

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DI­NAN

Im­mi­gra­tion agents catch an abysmally small per­cent­age of the il­le­gal im­mi­grants who ar­rived on visas but over­stayed their wel­come, au­thor­i­ties ad­mit­ted to Congress, de­scrib­ing a loop­hole that those around the globe are in­creas­ingly us­ing to gain a foothold in the U.S.

At least 480,000 peo­ple over­stayed their visas last year, adding to a back­log that’s reached some 5 mil­lion to­tal, mem­bers of Congress said. But im­mi­gra­tion agents launched in­ves­ti­ga­tions into just 10,000 of them, or about 0.2 per­cent, and ar­rested fewer than 2,000, less than 0.04 per­cent, say­ing the oth­ers don’t rise to the level of be­ing pri­or­ity tar­gets.

“We uti­lize our pri­or­i­ti­za­tion scheme along with the re­sources that we have,” Craig Healy, as­sis­tant direc­tor for na­tional se­cu­rity in­ves­ti­ga­tions at U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Customs En­force­ment, said as he strug­gled to de­fend the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s mea­ger ef­forts.

He blamed a short­age of fund­ing and a tricky en­vi­ron­ment, where au­thor­i­ties only have limited in­for­ma­tion, and it takes them months to de­cide if some­one re­ally did over­stay their visa and if they are deemed se­ri­ous enough of­fend­ers to make an ef­fort to go af­ter.

Mem­bers of Congress were stunned, say­ing more needs to be done to go af­ter over­stays.

Rep. La­mar Smith, Texas Repub­li­can, said the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has in­creas­ingly lost sight of the prob­lem, de­port­ing some 12,500 over­stays in 2009, but just 6,800 in 2012 and only 2,500 last year — or less than one out of ev­ery 2,000.

“By de­port­ing such a small per­cent­age of the visa over­stay­ers, the mes­sage they are send­ing wide and far is just get into the coun­try, if you’re not con­victed of a se­ri­ous crime, [and] you’re go­ing to be al­lowed to stay. You’re gonna pass go; you’re gonna get the money,” Mr. Smith said. “That is the wrong mes­sage to send be­cause it in­creases more il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion.”

Over­stays have tra­di­tion­ally drawn less scru­tiny than bor­der jumpers when it comes to il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. For one, they en­tered legally, which means they went through at least some in­spec­tion, and they are more likely to go home of their own ac­cord.

While bor­der crossers draw heav­ily from Latin Amer­ica, visa over­stays come from across the globe — in­clud­ing from so-called “spe­cial in­ter­est” coun­tries with ties to ter­ror­ism.

Af­ter years of delay, Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials in Jan­uary re­leased a re­port de­tail­ing part of the prob­lem. Of the nearly 50 mil­lion busi­ness and tourist visas is­sued, about 1 per­cent — or 500,000 — re­mained even af­ter their per­mis­sion ex­pired in 2015.

Cana­di­ans were the largest group of of­fend­ers, ac­count­ing for nearly a fifth. Mex­ico, Brazil, Ger­many and Italy rounded out the top five, the Pew Re­search Cen­ter said.

And the re­port did not in­clude those who came on stu­dent or work visas, who may have much dif­fer­ent over­stay rates given that many of them put down roots dur­ing their more ex­tended time legally in the coun­try.

Rep. Sheila Jack­son Lee, Texas Demo­crat, de­fended the lower pri­or­ity given to track­ing down visa over­stays, say­ing that at least, in re­cent years, they haven’t been im­pli­cated in ma­jor ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

“The ques­tion for the Amer­i­can peo­ple is the is­sue of se­cu­rity and the level of threat that these peo­ple rep­re­sent,” she said.

How­ever, a num­ber of the Sept. 11, 2001, hi­jack­ers were over­stays, prompting the 9/11 Commission to call for the gov­ern­ment to com­plete a track­ing sys­tem so all vis­i­tors to the U.S. are tracked on en­try and exit. The en­try sys­tem works, but the gov­ern­ment does not have a com­plete work­ing exit sys­tem.

The De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity was cre­ated af­ter the 2001 at­tack, and John Wag­ner, deputy as­sis­tant com­mis­sioner of U.S. Customs and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion, said he thinks the de­part­ment is now in a po­si­tion where it could have spot­ted those at­tack­ers ahead of time.

“I be­lieve we would have iden­ti­fied them, yes, with the sys­tems that are in place now and the mea­sures in place now. I be­lieve so,” he tes­ti­fied to the House Com­mit­tee on Home­land Se­cu­rity.

Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials said they reg­u­larly scan the visa lists for se­cu­rity risks and rely on in­for­ma­tion be­ing fed from the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity to fig­ure out whom to tar­get for ex­tra scru­tiny.

Mr. Healy said once some­one is flagged, his an­a­lysts then try to fig­ure out if they can match the name to spe­cific deroga­tory in­for­ma­tion and if they can track down where that per­son is. If so, they be­come one of the ac­tive cases, and he has “well over” 100 in­ves­ti­ga­tors to go af­ter them.

Of 10,000 in­ves­ti­ga­tions opened last year, 40 per­cent of the tar­gets were ei­ther found to have be­lat­edly left the coun­try or to have been granted some form of new le­gal sta­tus by U.S. Cit­i­zen­ship and Im­mi­gra­tion Ser­vices.

If his in­ves­ti­ga­tors can’t track some­one down or deem them not a pri­or­ity right now, he or she ends up on a back­log list, which in­ves­ti­ga­tors try to re­visit ev­ery few months. That back­log list stands at 95,000 names, Mr. Healy said.

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