US immigration department struggling to track US visa holders

A government watchdog report has revealed that US Visa agents are struggling to track US visa holders because of ‘archaic computer systems.’ When attempting to locate foreigners suspected of overstaying their visas, immigration officers often discover that they have been wasting their time because many US visa holders have exited the country.

According to the report, immigration enforcement operatives and analysts have to use 10 to 40 passwords to access computer systems. However, the report – compiled by the US Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General – found that 40 percent of ‘active’ cases in one year alone turned out not to be overstays at all.

ICE agents locked out of US visa computer systems

Meanwhile, the report further disclosed that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have been locked out of computer systems for durations lasting minutes or several days. The report said that ICE agents posed a security risk because they keep passwords ‘written out on their desks.’

Interviewing ICE agents as part of the report, the Inspector General was told by an operative that approximately one in five US visa holders under investigation by him had already left the country. By following up those leads, he’d wasted 225 hours, the report confirmed.

An excerpt from the report reads: “The time being wasted on investigating false leads increases the risk of legitimate cases of overstaying being overlooked.”

The Inspector General’s findings raise serious concerns that will have to be tackled by President Trump’s administration, if he wants to make US immigration enforcement his top priority.

US visa overstay cases the main source of illegal immigration

The report claims that people who remain in the country beyond the validity of their US visa are the main source of illegal immigration in recent years. President Trump has pledged to arrest and deport what he describes as a ‘sizable proportion of the population that is a scourge on US society.’

However, where immigration authorities have acted upon legitimate overstay cases, arresting those people has led to civil unrest. 24 hours before the release of the Inspector General’s report, a rally took place in the streets of Utah protesting against the detainment of a Mexican immigrant who overstayed her US visa back in 1993.

In response to the Inspector General’s report, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said: “US visa controls are a matter of national security, and it is imperative that we know who is entering our country and when they leave so that we protect American citizens and our interests.”

Much of the current computer network used by ICE agents was inherited from the US Department of Homeland Security when it was established in 2003, two years after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

According to the report, a combination of outdated technology and a lack of training for agents has contributed to an inability to monitor the immigration status and whereabouts of US visa holders who enter the country for business, vacation, studies or other reasons.

Consequently, ICE agents fail to establish a US visa holder’s status and if they’re a national security threat, for several months. A significant problem identified by the report is the non-existence of a system for tracking US visa holders when they depart the country.

Despite US visa holders being screened when they enter the country, the government has been slow to track their departures. Claude Arnold, a former special agent-in-charge of ICE’s homeland security investigations in Los Angeles, said: “The problems are deeply frustrating for immigration agents.”

“They take all the time to run a bunch of other databases to locate the person. They go out and knock on doors. Then, they go to the last place of residence, and they knock on the door, and ‘Oh’, that person left the country.”

Number of non-immigrant US visa overstays exceeds 500,000

According to the report, the number of foreigners arriving in the US on non-immigrant visas and overstaying, in the year ending September 2015, exceeded 500,000. This is out of approximately 45 million visitors entering the United States in that time.  

To combat the problem of tracking people leaving the country, the government has since launched a biometric screening program for US visa holders exiting the States from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. They plan to rollout the system across other US airports in 2018.

As part of the pilot program, US Customs and Border Protection combine traveller and airline data with images taken of passengers to confirm their departure. Recommended by the federal commission that investigated the 2001 terror attack, the biometric system was installed following the atrocities. Two of the perpetrators had overstayed their US visa.

Between October 2014 and September of 2015, the US granted more than 10 million non-immigrant visas. Visa holders who stay beyond the validity of their visa are investigated to establish whether they have applied for immigration benefits, left the country or pose a security risk.

It’s understood that Homeland Security is in agreement with the report’s conclusions.

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