Falling Behind on Security: Visa Tracking Deadlines, Met and Missed

By CIS on December 18, 2003

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WASHINGTON (December 18, 2003) -- The Administration has missed a majority of the deadlines set by Congress in the 2002 visa-tracking law, according to a new report published jointly by the Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA Education and Research Foundation.

The report is the first to systematically examine the implementation of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002. Signed into law in May 2002, the visa tracking law, as it is often called, and the USA Patriot Act were the primary legislative responses to the 9/11 attacks. While the Patriot Act has been the subject of extensive debate, the visa tracking law has received relatively little attention. The full report, "Falling Behind on Security: Implementation of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002," by Rosemary Jenks and Steven Camarota, is available at https://cis.org/sites/cis.org/files/articles/2003/back1903.html.

Among the findings:

  • Of 22 mandated deadlines that already have passed, more than half (13) were missed.
  • Of the 13 missed deadlines, four of the required reforms eventually were implemented, while nine others still have not been implemented.
  • One of the most important missed deadlines is the Administration's failure to report any progress on the development of an integrated biometric-based database, dubbed Chimera, that would give the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security real-time access to law enforcement, immigration, and intelligence information on every alien.
  • The government still is not checking the names of all aliens from 'visa waiver' countries against terrorist watch lists at ports of entry, though it was required to do so upon enactment of the visa tracking law. Checking these names is critical because visa waiver aliens are not vetted by U.S. consulates prior to arrival.
  • Machines that can read and compare biometric information on Border Crossing Cards have yet to be installed at most ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, greatly facilitating fraudulent use of the cards.

Commenting on the report, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) observed, "The White House has insisted on implementing a massive government reorganization without providing the resources to finance it. It was a recipe for just the types of border security lapses this report identifies." Sen. Byrd, ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, continued: "The President made a commitment to the American people when he signed the visa tracking bill into law. He should live up to his commitment by investing the funds necessary to fully implement it."

Despite significant failures, however, a number of provisions of the visa tracking law have been successfully implemented:

  • Creation of an interim data-sharing system between government agencies;
  • Development of a biometric technology standard to verify the identity of non-citizens;
  • Establishment of terrorist lookout committees in U.S. missions abroad;
  • Advance electronic submission of passenger manifests by all commercial airlines and vessels;
  • Implementation of the foreign student tracking system (SEVIS);
  • Submission of an annual report on alien absconders who fail to show up for removal following a final order of deportation.

There is probably no more important tool for preventing future attacks on American soil than the nation's immigration system. Because the current terrorist threat comes primarily from individuals who arrive from abroad, our system for admitting immigrants and temporary visitors, as well as controlling our borders, is vital to reducing chances of another attack. If fully implemented, the visa tracking law could significantly enhance national security. Implementation also could help in reducing illegal immigration by making it more difficult for an alien to overstay a temporary visa.
However, as we approach the second anniversary of the law's passage, the Administration is falling behind and has not carried out several of the legislation's key provisions. As a result, many of the loopholes that have been used by terrorists in the past remain open. The Administration and Congress must make a greater effort to ensure that the law is implemented. If not, and terrorists again enter the country and commit another attack on American soil, we may have only ourselves to blame.