NEW YORK – This year will mark the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks which devastated America. The attacks brought into focus visitors who got visa stamped at consulates and embassies overseas, smiled at immigration officers at entry points, went on to harm America. Two of the 9/11 terrorists, Satam al-Suqami and Nawaq Alhazmi, overstayed their student visas. A country which welcomed visitors rightfully became suspicious, spawned overnight anti-immigration sentiments.
Yet, despite almost two decades on, in the land where cutting-edge technology dictates terms to the rest of the world, has shaped the digital era, there is no definitive way to calculate how many visitors who come and enjoy America actually ever leave within legally permitted limits.
It may surprise many, but only last year, in 2016, did the US government add up total numbers on visa overstays, with country-wise figures, according to figures released this week by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The report is only the second issued in the last 20 years despite being required annually by law.
The numbers are not pretty. It indicate the Trump administration may build an impenetrable wall on the border with Mexico, and for that matter, with Canada, too, but illegal immigration is a phenomenon like water through the sieve of legal immigration channels; surpass those who crawl underneath through tunnels, climb barriers, stowaways.
Of the 50 million people who visited the US, in 2016, an estimated 629,000 people, including 30,000 from India, overstayed visas. The individuals included temporary workers, tourists, and students. Of 50,427, 278 people processed at entry points, there are no exit records for 1.47 percent. The rate is much higher for student and exchange visitors: of 1,457,556, about 5.48 percent overstayed, noted NextGov.
The New York Times noted that the highest rate of overstays were from countries outside the visa-waiver program – 13 percent of the visitors from Afghanistan overstayed their visas, while nearly 11 percent of those from Iraq overstayed. The highest rates of overstays were from African countries. A quarter of all visitors from Burkina Faso and Djibouti overstayed their tourist or business visa.
The problem is that while there’s a top notch biometric system to track visitors who come in, it gets cumbersome to track those who leave. DHS have to consult as many as 27 separate databases, including commercial aircraft data, to collate numbers. It’s a painstaking, Herculean task, given that even these separate two dozen plus databases are not fool-proof.
NextGov reported that DHS has a pilot of a biometric system to tracks exits, in place at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. President Donald Trump also recently signed an executive order directing DHS to deploy a biometric exit system.
However, it’s inadequate, to say the least.
The glaring loopholes in the US biometric system for travelers also overshadows Thursday’s decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to put on hold President Trump’s travel ban that targeted some Muslim-majority countries, especially from countries linked to wide-spread terrorism.
Critics may argue of the difficulty in tracking and stopping those who intend to set up sleeper cells or indulge in lone wolf attacks, especially those who emigrate with a clean police record sheet or any known links to radical outfits. But, it’s imperative that the US puts more effort in knowing who enters and leaves the country, or not.
In an age where countries around the world are on tenterhooks on a daily basis, unable to comprehend where the next crazy attack targeting innocent people will come from, the Trump administration is right in wanting to vet visitors from some countries.
It’s unacceptable that so many visitors from places like Iraq, Afghanistan and African countries can relocate to the US with a stamping of a passport, and then thereafter can live without fear of getting caught in the US, unless they have a run-in with law enforcement personnel.
It’s bizarre that though the global biometric system market is projected to grow from about $11 billion in 2015 to roughly $32 billion by 2022, according to an industry report by the firm Research and Markets, the US is still struggling to track visitors.
Maybe, President Trump would be better off allocating that $1.6 billion to start building 74 miles of barriers, in his debut budget, to an urgent biometric system, which can track the people living in the country illegally.
That’s the real need of the hour.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)