The terrorist attacks of 9-11 were carried out by 19 hijackers who used as many as 164 sets of personal information and aliases. Four of the terrorists held legitimately issued—if fraudulently obtained—U.S. visas that allowed them to enter the country legally. Those documents had expired well before the attack, but because the U.S. government had no means of tracking persons with expired visas, nor any policy of enforcement, these terrorists were free to change history. Now it turns out that the latest alleged terrorist plotter—Hussein Smadi—also overstayed his visa.
These incidents reveal the difficulties of controlling who enters the country and who remains. In an effort to address that issue, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) established a plan for collection of biometric identification data from foreigners who enter and exit the country as one of its first initiatives in 2003. DHS dubbed its program U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT), but nearly six years after the program’s launch, full entry scanning remains elusive, and the program’s exit component is still on the drawing board.
While Congress, DHS, and private stakeholders mull the future of US-VISIT, experts remain divided over whether its potential for risk reduction justifies the billions of dollars the government believes full implementation would cost.
While 9-11 brought issues such as immigration fraud and “visa overstays” to the fore, they were not new concerns to the federal government, nor was 9-11 the first time the violations had contributed to terror on U.S. soil. Jordanian Eyad Ismoil, convicted for his role in the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, had overstayed a student visa when he helped co-conspirator Ramzi Yousef drive a truck bomb into the underground parking lot of the Twin Towers, where it detonated, killing six and injuring more than 1,000.
Congress took note, and in 1996 required that the U.S. Attorney General develop an entry and exit management system. The program, handled by the former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), was solely biographic as opposed to biometric, in that it relied on the veracity of personal and travel documents and the data they contain. Further mandates in 2000 required that the program, called simply Entry-Exit, be integrated into an electronic system and deployed to airports and seaports.
At the time of the 9-11 attacks, however, the management systems were passive and relied on a visa holder reporting his or her exit to U.S. authorities. If a visa holder did nothing, there was no way for the government to flag and find incidents of visa holders who had not departed when the visa expired. And there is still no system to record exits to verify departure; the government could, therefore, waste time looking for someone who left without filling out the departure form.