The Department of Homeland Security soon will complete its review of 1.6 million people who may have overstayed their visas in the United States, witnesses told members of a Senate committee during a hearing Wednesday.
"I'm expecting a report of the completion of this process" Thursday, DHS Coordinator for Counterterrorism Rand Beers told members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Committee members expressed concern over the high number of backlogged records searches, noting that several of the 9/11 hijackers had overstayed their visas.
Already, Beers said, DHS investigators have determined half of the suspected overstays have either left the country or have changed their status by submitting new paperwork. The remaining half is currently being run alongside other databases to identify potential threats.
"The number of 1.6 million will be down to 0 in a week or so," Assistant DHS Policy Secretary David Heyman assured the committee. Anyone who left the country in overstay status would not be allowed back into the country, Beers added.
Committee members and witnesses spent much of the Senate hearing, entitled "Preventing Terrorist Travel," discussing strengths and weaknesses of different programs which allow foreign nationals into the country, including the visa, refugee and asylum processes.
Security gaps drew attention in 2009, after a Nigerian man unsuccessfully tried to detonate a bomb in 2009 aboard a Detroit-bound airliner. It was the misspelling of attempted Christmas day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's name by U.S. Embassy officials which prevented the State Department from realizing that he had received a valid visa. The U.S. Embassy in Nigeria sent the cable with the misspelled name to intelligence officials after Abdulmutallab's father identified him as being involved with Yemeni-based terrorists.
"That is so troubling to me," said Sen. Susan Collins, R.-Maine, referring to the case. "That he wasn't listed on the watch list…but also that his visa wasn't revoked."
But now, testified Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Janice Jacobs, you can misspell a name and the State Department database will display hits on the name and others that come close. The system, which Jacobs said uses "fuzzy logic," is useful when Arabic names are spelled differently when transliterated into English.
Committee members also expressed concern over two Iraqi men living in Bowling Green, Ky. who were granted refugee status in 2009. It was later discovered that fingerprints belonging to one of those men, Waad Alwan, were found in 2005 on an improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq positioned to target American troops.
Waad Alwan and Kentucky resident Mohanad Hammadi were indicted in May on charges that they aided insurgents fighting American troops in Iraq. The men received refugee status through the U.S.'s Iraqi refugee program, created in 2007.
DHS now is reviewing the 58,000 Iraqi refugees already in the U.S. who came in through the program, Heyman said.
Despite the recent breaches, the witnesses, all federal officials, said that they are closing security gaps.
More stringent screening policies for visa applicants have been put into place, Jacobs said, offering to provide senators details in a classified briefing.
"We have revoked over 1,000 visas since 2009," Jacobs said. And Heyman added that the TSA's secure flight program has stopped 25 people per month from boarding flights.