WASHINGTON -- Senators sharply questioned Homeland Security officials on how to ensure foreign visitors leave the United States when their visas expire -- unlike some of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
The answer: It's "a very difficult problem," said acting Assistant Secretary Elaine Dezenski.
At a Judiciary Committee hearing Monday that examined security gaps in the nation's immigration system, lawmakers also demanded to know whether foreigners from "visa-waiver" countries will be carrying new machine-readable passports in time for an October deadline. Unlike most foreigners, business travelers and tourists from 27 visa-waiver nations -- Japan, New Zealand, Australia and most of Europe -- are allowed into the United States for months using only a passport.
"We haven't made a formal determination on that at this time," said Dezenski, who heads the department's Border and Transportation Security planning and policy office.
"In this world today, we ought to know who's coming into our country with reasonable certainty," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. "I don't think that's too much to ask."
"I agree," Dezenski said.
"And we also want to know when they leave," Feinstein said. "Do you know when visa-waiver individuals leave the country?"
Responded Dezenski, "No, we don't."
Dezenski said only two of the 27 visa-waiver countries were likely to meet the Oct. 26 deadline, which has already been extended from Oct. 1, 2003. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, later said Japan and Australia were those two countries.
At issue is the relative ease -- at least before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks -- with which immigrants can get into the United States and stay illegally. The majority of the al-Qaida hijackers who carried out the attacks had entered the county as tourists, said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican.
Dezenski and Customs and Border Protection Assistant Commissioner Thomas J. Walters maintained Homeland Security is far more aggressive in identifying, constraining and denying immigration access to suspected terrorists. They said that has been achieved, in part, with better information sharing and coordination among federal agencies and nearly 14 weeks of training for border patrol agents.
"It's no secret that pre-9/11 ... intelligence and information were not being shared in ways that would deter terrorist threats," Dezenski said.
As much as 40 percent of illegal immigrants in the United States entered the country legally but overstayed their visas, said Cornyn, who chaired the hearing.
"We have no means, zero means, of identifying where those people are or actually making sure they leave the country when their visa expires," Cornyn said. "Is that correct?"
"We recognize that has been a vulnerability and needs to get fixed," said Dezenski, adding that closing that gap "will be the focus of the next 12 months."
But Cornyn noted that any new system probably won't be able to identify how to find foreigners who overstay their visas.
Agreed Dezenski: "That's a very difficult problem... Once visitors are in the country, if they're not exiting at any given time, it seems like we would have a big problem on our hands to try to locate potentially thousands of people."