The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is planning to launch a biometric data tracking system to monitor when immigrants leave the United States. A top department official told a House Homeland Security subcommittee Tuesday that the plan will be finalized and presented to Congress within weeks.
The tracking system will keep tabs on which immigrants are leaving the country and when. Homeland Security has been hoping to launch the tracking system since before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but opponents said the system would be too expensive.
The tracking system would serve the dual function of making it easier to get rid of illegal immigrants but also avoid risks that terrorists might move to the United States and strike from within the country. It was designed for tracking “overstays” – immigrants who came to the U.S. legally on a visa, but did not leave when their visa expired.
Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI), chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said, “since 9/11, our border security efforts have been focused on securing our borders. However, more than 40 percent of all illegal aliens do not sneak across the border, they come in through the front door and never leave.”
John Cohen, the department’s deputy counter terrorism coordinator, did not discuss the cost of the tracking system in his testimony about the problem of immigrants who overstay visas. He said the department’s report to Congress will explain how DHS plans to better determine who has overstayed their visa.
Thirty-six people who overstayed their visas have been convicted on terrorism charges in the past decade, according to Homeland Security Department figures.
The first phase of the tracking system has been tested, which allowed the Department of Homeland Security “to conduct richer, more thorough vetting for national security and public safety concerns,” Cohen said. “This generated new leads for ICE, which previously would not have been uncovered.”
The “enhanced biographic exit plan” allows police to submit fingerprints from suspected illegal immigrants to an FBI and Homeland Security database of people who have been issued visas. If their visas are expired, a computer database will indicate they should no longer be in the United States, particularly if they represent a safety or crime threat.
“This enhanced exit plan improves DHS’s ability to calculate overstays and reduce their occurrence in the future,” Cohen said.
Support for the tracking system gained momentum last month when Amine El Khalifi, 29, of Alexandria, VA, was arrested near the U.S. Capitol trying to carry out a suicide shooting and bombing attack.
The Morocco native came to the United States as a teenager in 1999 on a visa that expired within one year. He has been living illegally in the United States since then.
He is now charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction after an undercover FBI agent posing as an Islamic terrorist pretended to help him plot an attack at the Capitol.
The undercover agent gave him an unusable machine gun and a vest packed with fake explosives. El Khalifi took the gun, put on the vest and started walking toward the Capitol but was arrested seconds later.
The Homeland Security Department says that with the enhanced biographic exit plan, they could have discovered El Khalifi years ago and deported him.
He received citations for disobeying a traffic sign and speeding in 2002 and 2006 that would have alerted Immigration and Customs Enforcement with the new system, according to the Homeland Security Department.
Only since 2004 has the Homeland Security Department and FBI kept computerized fingerprints of immigrants, which explains why overstays often were overlooked until now, said James Ziglar, who headed the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 2001 until it was merged into the Homeland Security Department in 2002.
“We were certainly focused on trying to find bad people and connecting the dots with the Department of State and their visa records,” Ziglar told the congressional committee. “I doubt very seriously he (El Khalifi) would have come up on the radar. He might have if you kept drilling down further and further just because of where he was from. But he would not have been, I think, an earlier target, just because there were more suspicious types.”