NOVEMBER 14, 2006
Despite its hefty $1 billion price tag, a federal program created by Congress after the 2001 terrorist attacks still can’t track whether foreigners actually leave the country when their visas expire.
Because at least four of the September 11 hijackers were in the United States with expired visas, lawmakers created a system that tracks the entry and exit of foreign visitors by using electronically scanned fingerprints and photographs. U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology (US VISIT) was promoted by Homeland Security officials as the device that would keep America’s doors open and the nation secured.
But five years and a billion taxpayer dollars later there are still serious flaws in the program, which has only been fully implemented at 12 U.S. airports and two seaports. Without it running full force, Homeland Security officials admit there is now way to track when foreigners stay in the country illegally.
Government figures reveal that as many as four million of the estimated 12 million people living in the United States illegally actually entered the country legally but overstayed their visas. This was the case with four of the 9/11 hijackers. Authorities lost track of them and they lived in the U.S. for years, training to attack Americans, after their visas had expired.
The same could easily happen again considering that hundreds of millions of foreigners enter the United States annually. In 2005 the number reached 300 million at land borders and about 86 million at airports. In fact, at a conference this week Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said US VISIT is a valuable device that will help identify unknown terrorists.
Americans must wonder why this great anti-terrorism tool still isn’t working properly after so many years and so much money. Homeland Security Watch reports that a plan to improve US VISIT’s dismal exit segment is underway but if it languishes, the benefits of the investments in entry systems over the years will not be realized.
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