DHS close to tracking down expired-visa holders with biometrics

The Homeland Security Department within a month will have a plan for a biometric system capable of identifying individuals who have overstayed their visas, such as the recent would-be U.S. Capitol bomber.

A decade ago, DHS started establishing the capability to automatically check the fingerprints and photos of visitors entering and exiting the United States. But the exit component of the system -- the one that would flag people who have expired visas -- has not come to fruition.

On Tuesday, a top DHS official said the department will provide Congress with details on an automated arrangement for collecting biometric markers, feeding it to the law enforcement and intelligence communities, and flagging visa overstays. It also will allow immigration enforcement authorities to find illegal visitors who are not public safety threats.

"It's going to be within weeks -- not months, not years," DHS Deputy Counterterrorism Coordinator John Cohen told lawmakers Tuesday. He said, it "would be our intention" to put forth the plan within the next 30 days.

Last month, Amine El Khalifi, an immigrant from Morocco living in Virginia on an expired 1999 visa, attempted to detonate explosives at the U.S. Capitol Building, according to FBI officials. He had earlier run-ins with the law for possession of marijuana and traffic violations. Following Khalifi's arrest, Congress is raising questions as to how someone with invalid documents can go undetected by authorities for years.

Homeland Security said law enforcement officials could not log on to the database that tracked border crossings before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a system then run by the former Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"In the case of Mr. Khalifi -- and others who went into overstay status in the late '90s and early 2000 -- the information repository, which reflected that they were potentially overstays, was TECS, the Treasury Enforcement Communications System," Cohen said, during a House Homeland Security Committee subcommittee hearing. "However, most local police departments during that time didn't have access to TECS."

He added, "unless they had some reason to believe an individual detained for some other offense was in fact an immigration violator, it would be rare that they would call INS and ask them to do a TECS check."

Under the forthcoming plan, authorities will be able to instantly pull up an offender's or nonoffender's immigration records and biometric markers, he said. The government already is able to vet visitor records from multiple databases for national security and public safety threats, Cohen added.

"So, today, if someone is arrested for any type of offense, part of the query that will take place will be an automatic check of immigrations systems -- it will be a check of TECS as well," he said. "The chances are greatly enhanced that today if somebody were to be booked on a minor drug offense or a serious traffic violation even, the person's immigration status would come to our attention."

Seth Stodder, a former DHS Customs and Border Protection director, said in an interview that the move toward biometric verification could stop terrorist plotters from faking their exits. For example, a visa holder would not be able to have a conspirator fly out of the country using his identification papers.

"It means we can have a better sense of tracking who leaves the country," Stodder said. "You would have to be actually Mohamed Atta leaving the country," he added, referring to the Sept. 11 hijacker, who himself was a visa overstay.

Stodder noted, however, that DHS does not have enough staff to deal with the estimated 11 million illegal entrants let alone visa overstays. Between 2009 and 2011, 37,000 criminal and noncriminal overstays were removed from the United States, DHS officials said Tuesday.

A biometric exit system "eliminates the identity fraud risk," said Stodder, now a senior fellow at The George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute. "It's an important thing to do. But it doesn't solve the overstay problem."