Senator Feinstein Urges Bush Administration to Address Serious Problems With Visa Waiver Program During Hearing of Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security
Feb 28 2008
Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security, today urged the Department of Homeland Security to comply with congressional mandates of the Visa Waiver Program. Senator Feinstein said the Department’s failure puts America at greater risk from terrorists who may seek to exploit the program’s weaknesses.
Following is the text of Senator Feinstein’s prepared opening remarks:
“For the citizens of 27 select countries – including Australia, Singapore, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom – entering the United States is as simple as purchasing an airline ticket and then arriving at the airport with a valid passport in hand. No visa is required because they are from countries that are part of the visa waiver program.
In fact, 15 million people enter the United States through the visa waiver program each year. Thousands of these people overstay their authorized visit; many just simply disappear into the shadows.
It is estimated that 40% of the current undocumented population are people who have overstayed their visas. That means that if there are 12 million undocumented people now in the U.S., 4.8 million people overstayed their visa. They did not enter the country illegally. These are people who came in at a U.S. port through legal channels but never went home.
There is no doubt that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of the illegal population came through the visa waiver program over a period of years. I believe the visa waiver program represents the Achilles’ heel of our immigration system.
The visa waiver program also provides an attractive option to terrorists looking to do Americans harm.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on September 27, 2007, DNI Director Mike McConnell testified that Al Qaeda is purposefully recruiting Europeans because they do not require a visa to come into this country.
As Director McConnell said, this tactic gives Al Qaeda “an extra edge in getting an operative or two or three into the country with the ability to carry out an attack that might be reminiscent of 9-11.”
Secretary Chertoff reiterated these concerns last month when he stated that “terrorists are increasingly looking to Europe as both a target and a platform for terrorist attacks” against the United States.
In an interview with BBC’s “World News America,” Secretary Chertoff acknowledged, “the first time we encounter [visa waiver travelers] is when they arrive in the United States and that creates a very small window of opportunity to check them out.”
Clearly, the visa waiver program leaves open both a major gap in our domestic security and a way to exploit our immigration laws.
Congress and the Department of Homeland Security have been focused on immigration enforcement. In fact, Congress appropriated 3 billion dollars for 2008 for this purpose. The Department of Homeland Security is using this money to build a border fence; to hire thousands more border patrol agents; to conduct immigration raids at farms and factories and homes across the country.
However, despite the money and resources the Department of Homeland Security is devoting to immigration enforcement, it continues to ignore the long-standing directive to track people who overstay their visas.
In 1986, as a pre-condition to implementing the visa waiver pilot program, the Attorney General was required to certify a system that could track arrivals and departures.
Since then, in no less than 12 pieces of legislation, Congress has directed the Executive branch over and over again to create a way to track who is coming and going from our country.
Congress has appropriated millions of dollars and deadline after deadline. But still, the Executive branch has failed to act.
This subcommittee held a hearing on the US-VISIT entry-exit system last January. At that point, it was clear that the Department of Homeland Security was failing to meet the mandate to develop a way to track who is coming and going from the United States at all of our ports of entry.
Today, it seems that the Department of Homeland Security is moving full steam ahead to admit even more countries to the visa waiver program. In fact, just on Tuesday, DHS signed a memorandum of understanding to bring yet another country – the Czech Republic – into the visa waiver program. Once again, they are doing so without meeting the mandates that Congress has laid out for them.
Just last week, Secretary Chertoff gave a press briefing on the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to strengthen border security and immigration reform. He stated, “Congress didn’t give us comprehensive immigration reform, so we are going to do what we can with the tools that we have.”
Let me be clear. Congress has given DHS tools to fix our immigration and security problems in the 9/11 legislation. The law has two straight-forward requirements:
First – DHS cannot admit new countries into the program until it has a way to track who is coming and going from our country’s airports – until it can verify the departure of 97% of travelers leaving U.S. airports. It cannot do so.
Second – DHS cannot admit new countries into the program until it has a fully operational electronic travel authorization system – a system that every visa waiver traveler must use. That means that every visa waiver traveler must provide their biographical information to the Department of Homeland Security before they can get on a plane to the United States. DHS cannot do so.
By all accounts, DHS cannot yet meet either requirement, but it is moving – contrary to law – to admit new countries – and even more travelers – into the program by this fall.
I believe that what we will hear today is that, rather than develop a meaningful exit program, DHS is so determined to certify that it can verify the departure of 97% of airport travelers, that it has developed a false calculation of the departure rate.
I have also heard that although the Administration is developing an “electronic travel authorization system,” it does not intend that all visa waiver travelers must use it initially – in clear contradiction of the statute.
Frankly, I hope that these reports are untrue. I would not like to believe that the Department of Homeland Security – which has exposed the way that terrorist operatives and illegal immigrants intend to exploit the visa waiver program – is the same agency that is moving full steam ahead to admit at least 4 and as many as 8 new countries into the program without the necessary controls in place.
I hope today that we can have an open discussion about the Administration’s intentions with respect to expanding the visa waiver program. We need straightforward answers to what needs to be done to make this program work without compromising our national security.”