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Senate Judiciary Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Security Concerns Involving Visa Waiver Program in Wake of New GAO Report

–Report found DHS does not adequately track foreign nationals from Visa Waiver countries–

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Homeland Security, today held a hearing on the nation’s visa waiver program in the wake of a new government report that illustrates numerous failures by the Department of Homeland Security in tracking foreign nationals from visa waiver countries.

Following is the text of Senator Feinstein’s prepared opening remarks:

“This afternoon we are here, once again, to look at what is being done – or not done – to ensure the safety of the visa waiver program. 

I have long expressed my concern that the visa waiver program is the soft underbelly of this nation’s immigration system because it offers an opportunity for people to come into the United States to do grievous harm. 

Travelers from visa waiver countries not only bypass the interview and individualized security screening process but, as the GAO report confirms, they are also lost once they arrive in the U.S.  This problem is exasperated because DHS is only checking if and when individuals depart at our airports.  So if they never leave, we often don’t know where they are.

I have held multiple hearings over several years and time and time again I am repeating my frustrations and yet there seems to be no improvements – no change in how the Department implements this program. 

Current law requires that before DHS admits any new countries into the visa waiver program, it must: 

  • Put in place a fully operational electronic travel authorization system for all travelers from visa waiver countries; and 
  • Verify the departure of 97 percent of foreign travelers leaving U.S. airports. 

DHS states that they will have these requirements met prior to admitting new countries into the program, but this is only true because of their limited interpretation of the statutory requirements. 

However, the GAO report found that DHS has not done the groundwork to prepare the embassies, travel industry, and travelers to make the electronic travel system fully operational.   

The GAO report also reaffirmed that DHS is not taking into account countries’ overstay rates in the air exit system.  DHS continues to maintain that certification of an air exit system is fulfilled by simply tracking 97% of individuals who exit through U.S. airports, not whether 97% of individuals who entered at airports actually left.

In the meantime, the GAO report shows that the Administration is moving full steam ahead in working to bring in as many as 8-10 new countries by the end of this year.   

I fail to understand why DHS is moving so quickly to add new countries to the program without properly mitigating the security risks.   

These risks are particularly apparent when we look at the statistics on the number of fraudulent and stolen passports and other international documents.  

Between January 2002 and June 2004, 28 foreign governments, including visa waiver countries, reported 56,943 stolen blank foreign passports to the State Department.  And just this summer, a security van in London was hijacked, resulting in the loss of 3,000 blank British passports and visas that were destined for overseas embassies. 

DHS’s own Inspector General, Clark Ervin has testified that: 

“The lost and stolen passport problem is the greatest security problem associated with the Visa Waiver Program.  Our country is vulnerable because gaps in our treatment of lost and stolen passports remain.”

Radicalism and homegrown terrorism in Europe is growing – and we know that Al-Qaeda is looking to exploit the visa waiver program.  But instead of acknowledging the threat this poses to the American people, the Administration is working to admit new countries with even higher visa refusal rates — meaning more people could be let into this country who would have previously been refused a visa because of security risks.

Secretary Chertoff himself has acknowledged the loophole that the visa waiver program leaves open for those who wish to do us harm.  Just this year, he stated that:

“We have a visa waiver program which allows most Europeans who come to be tourists to come without visas.  This means that the first time we encounter them is when they arrive in the United States, and that creates a very small window of opportunity to check them out.” 

I find it ironic that the Department of Homeland Security, whose number one goal is to “protect the nation from dangerous people,” is instead expediting the expansion of a program that we know is exploited by dangerous persons. 

Clearly, the visa waiver program leaves open both a major gap in our domestic security and a way to exploit our immigration laws.  I am committed to doing everything I can to close it.  That is why I plan to introduce "The Strengthening the Visa Waiver Program to Secure America Act,” a bill that would tighten the security of the program to mitigate its immigration and security risks. 

I look forward to hearing about the Government Accountability Office’s findings on the visa waiver program expansion process and the Department of Homeland Security’s response.  I hope that we can have an open discussion about the Administration’s intentions with respect to expanding the visa waiver program. 

We need straightforward answers as to what needs to be done to make this program work without compromising our national security.”