Barletta Discusses Need to Strengthen Visa System to Protect National Security during Hearing
Click here to see video of Barletta’s questioning.
WASHINGTON – Yesterday during a House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security hearing, Congressman Lou Barletta (PA-11) discussed the need to strengthen our visa system in order to protect national security.
The hearing, “Visa Overstays: A Gap in the Nation’s Border Security,” examined the need for a viable biometric entry-exit system to allow authorities to track visitors who have arrived in the United States and when they have departed. While some progress has been made collecting information, including fingerprints and photographs, of aliens upon entry into the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cannot match such biometric information upon exit from the country.
For years, Barletta has called for Congress and the administration to complete a biometric entry-exit screening system, which the 9/11 Commission Report called an essential investment in our security.
During the hearing, Barletta pointed out that as many as four of the 9/11 hijackers violated the terms of their visas or overstayed, a pattern that has continued in other terrorist plots.
He questioned U.S. Customs and Border Protection Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner John Wagner about biometric verification at lands points of entry into the United States.
“One gaping hole in plans we have heard about today is land ports of entry, where about two-thirds of travelers pass through,” Barletta said. “Can you please speak to plans to collect biometric entry data at land points of entry? Why aren’t we verifying the identity of land arrivals biometrically?”
Wagner responded that the U.S. Department of State takes the biometrics of most foreign nationals, with the exception of Canadian citizens, when it issues visas, and those biometrics are verified when the individuals enter the United States by land.
“The plans [for verifying biometrics] on departure are to start with third country nationals…and set up a manual reporting requirement for them,” Wagner said.
Barletta also questioned Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Border and Trade Policy Michael Dougherty about a recent DHS study on visa overstays. While Barletta pointed out that the report was more complete than the report DHS issued last year, he noted that it does not cover all foreign visitors to the United States, such as those who enter through land ports. It also does not provide the total estimated amount of the current overstay population in the United States – it instead provides a snapshot of time.
“How do you plan to use the information in the new overstay report, and what do you think is the most effective way to address the problem of overstays?” Barletta said.
Dougherty said that he believes that a better means of communicating with people who are here on visas should be explored, and called for increasing training for individuals tasked with screening visa applicants.
“In terms of compliance and getting people to voluntarily leave, if their intention is to come here and overstay, we need to do a better of job of understanding whether or not that is their intention on the front end,” Dougherty said. “If we’re going to be doing screening and vetting in a more robust fashion, how does that translate into real life? I think part of it is going to be increasing training for those individuals who do interview people who are intending to come to the United States to better understand their intent.”
As a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, Barletta has long called for a stronger biometric entry-exit system to prevent against individuals overstaying their visas. Overstayed visas account for nearly 50 percent of people who are in the United States illegally. According to the most recent data released by the administration, in Fiscal Year 2016, more people overstayed their travel visas (739,478 individuals) than were apprehended illegally crossing the border (415,816 individuals).
“Most people think about illegal immigration in terms of the southern border with Mexico,” Barletta said. “But, as I have always said, if your state is home to an international airport, then you essentially live in a border state. Several of the 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. on a valid visa, overstayed, and attacked us.”
Earlier, this year, Barletta re-introduced the Visa Overstay Enforcement Act, H.R. 643, which makes overstaying a visa a criminal offense rather than a civil offense as federal law currently holds. Under the bill, a first instance of staying in the United States beyond a visa’s expiration date would be a misdemeanor, while subsequent infractions would be felonies. The bill for the first time brings penalties for visa overstays into line with existing law for unlawfully crossing the U.S. border.