Security issues scrutinized with reference to visa overstayers

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, the loopholes in the American immigration system are being stringently examined. It’s revealed that all the 19 alleged hijackers had entered the nation legally and two had overstayed their visas. Since Sept. 11, the INS has increased scrutiny of people applying for visas, particularly among Middle Eastern men.

Back in 1996, Congress passed a law requiring the immigration service to set up a rigorous system to track when a foreigner enters and leaves the country to help curb visa overstays. It’s referred to as “controlled departure”. As per this “entry/exit system”, foreign visitors would have ID cards that they would swipe on the way in and swipe on the way out. But after border towns objected, voicing concern about massive delays and disrupted commerce, Congress twice postponed implementation.

After Sept. 11, the House again passed a bill calling for the controlled-departure system. But critics note such a system could cost tens of billions of dollars to implement properly. And it may do little to increase national security. They contend that with an estimated 31 million temporary visits to the US each year, looking for a terrorist at entry/exit points is a “needle in a haystack” approach. And even if INS could easily identify visa overstayers, setting the FBI to go after them would not be a cost-effective way to control terrorism. The Senate version is pending.

It’s estimated that each year more than 100,000 legal visitors decide to stay. In their desire for a better life, they are taking advantage of what’s become the easiest, albeit illegal way, of grasping the American dream. In general, illegal immigrants in this country are considered a “self-selected” group of hard-working, entrepreneurial people. “As a class, they’re educated, skilled, and innovative. They’re willing to take jobs Americans won’t. They’re a tremendous boost to the economy,” says Allan Wernick, chairman of the Citizenship and Immigration Project at the City University of New York.

But as opponents of illegal immigration note, they did cheat to get here. Their first interaction with the US government was to lie about their intention to return home. As a result, they skipped over the millions of foreigners who sometimes wait years to immigrate here legally.

Some immigration experts say the only way to start bringing the system under control is to grant amnesty to many of the people who are already here. But the bottom line, they say, is tightening up the borders.

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