An inconvenient fix to America’s immigration problem

Most of the discussion about our broken immigration system centers on those who enter the country illegally over the porous 2,000-mile southwest land border that stretches over four states. But that is only a partial picture of illegal immigration in the United States.

Overlooked in the discussion are the security risks presented by the estimated 40 percent of the 11 to 12 million unauthorized residents who came here legally, then stayed after their student, business or tourist visas expired. In other words, these immigrants did not jump a fence, cross a river, or pay to be smuggled into the country. To borrow Vice President Biden’s words, “This is really a big deal.”

The number of visitors who come to the United States legally each year but pose a potential national security or public safety threat is unknown. Under current law, those who overstay their visas are committing only a civil violation of federal law, while those who sneak across the border are committing a federal crime.

Addressing the large number of foreign visitors who have entered the United States legally but then overstayed has been a long-standing challenge. Tracking the arrival and departure of foreign visitors is an essential part of protecting Americans from those who would do us harm.

While the Department of Homeland Security takes fingerprints and photos of foreigners who enter the United States, their ability to track immigrants who stay past their visa expiration in real time is severely limited, especially when you consider that any state with an international airport is a border state.

Perhaps it is time to simply issue people American Express cards because they seem to have no problem tracking their customers. The persistent problems of visa overstays are not given the same priority in allocating resources as efforts to blockade the border states. It may be because overstays don’t make for good 10-second sound bites like those who cross the Rio Grande river in search of a better life do. These Mexican immigrants are building houses, not bombs.

The government has known for some time that the visa process is vulnerable to terrorist exploitation. The General Accounting Office has reported that 36 of the roughly 400 people convicted of terrorismĀ­ related charges since 2001 overstayed their visas.

In 2007, Hosam Smadi arrived from Jordan on a 90-day tourist visa but never left. Two years later he plotted to blow up a Dallas high-rise with a car bomb.

Another tourist, 29-year old Moroccan Amine El Khalifi, overstayed his visa and conspired to detonate a bomb at the U.S. capitol in 2012.

Lest Americans forget, on 9/11, 19 foreign terrorists came right through America’s front door on legitimate visas, hijacked four planes and murdered almost 3,000 innocent people. On the day of the attack, four of them were living in the shadows even though their visas had expired.

Fifteen of the 9/11 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia, but that did not dissuade the federal government in January 2013 from adding the country to the U.S. Global Entry trusted traveler program, which streamlines the airport screening process.

With the United States at war against terrorism, it may be time to consider Michael Corleone’s  11th commandment: Protect your family at any cost. Even if it means antagonizing those such as the airlines and tourism industry concerned about reduced travel to the United States or those who worry about the privacy issues involved in cracking down on visa overstays with increased monitoring of visitors.

If the United States is ever going to get serious about fixing our broken immigration system, we need to be willing to take on some of the interests who might be inconvenienced by the fix.

originally published: April 1, 2015

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