INS in a heap of trouble

Posted: Mar 20, 2002 12:00 AM
The Immigration and Naturalization Service's mishandling of student visas has become a national scandal. Last week's fiasco involving approval of student visas for two of the Sept. 11 hijackers -- notices of which were received by a Florida flight school six months to the day after the two men had killed more than 3,000 people -- is only the tip of the iceberg. Students comprise only a tiny fraction of the total foreign visitors who enter the country each year, about 500,000 of the 300 million entries into the United States annually (some of which are multiple entries by the same persons). Once a foreign visitor passes through U.S. Customs, he's home free to go anywhere and do anything he chooses, for good or ill. And he can stay as long as he wants, no matter what his visa says, because the government has no way of tracking him once he's entered the country and no way of knowing when he's left. Congress passed legislation in 1996 requiring that all entries and exits be recorded. But the system still isn't fully functional, even after the terrorist attacks last fall and in the face of potential future attacks from al-Qaeda and other anti-American extremists. The INS's response to the hijackers' visa snafu has been typically bureaucratic. First, claim the problem wasn't as bad as it looked -- after all, INS officials claimed, the visas were approved before the terrorist attack, it just took an extra eight months to notify the flight school. Second, shuffle a few mid-level managers around, as if that were equivalent to holding them accountable. I'm sorry, that's just not good enough. Heads should roll over this incident, and quickly. But more importantly, we need a system in place -- right now -- that will allow federal law enforcement to track what happens to foreign visitors once they enter the United States. Other countries do it, why can't we? Congress has appropriated over $800 million over the last 10 years to overhaul the antiquated INS computer system, but it's not clear where the money's gone. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) said recently that despite repeated requests, she's never even gotten a report on how the agency has spent the funds. But there may be something the government could do immediately to solve this problem -- and without a huge infusion in taxpayer dollars. A private company, USAVisitor.Net, has developed a system that would track foreign visitors through the Internet, requiring them to check in periodically after they arrive in the United States. The system would ask visitors to answer questions and provide information that could be used later by law enforcement if the visitor either failed to comply with reporting requirements or became involved in criminal activity. The system was developed by a former FBI special agent for counter terrorism, and the company is now partnered with one of the largest document imaging services in the United States. The first step in the system would be to scan all I-94 Arrival/Departure records currently required by the INS, using the same technology employed by thousands of private companies, such as Federal Express and United Parcel Service. USAVN proposes that their system would be paid for by user fees charged directly to anyone wanting to obtain a U.S. visa, so that it would not burden taxpayers. Until the late 1980s, the INS required mandatory self-reporting by foreign visitors, and the IRS uses mandatory self-reporting of income by 124 million Americans each year. Is it really too much to ask that we re-instate a self-reporting requirement on foreign visitors once again? Internet access is now ubiquitous. There are terminals in airports, hotels, libraries, cafes, business centers, not to mention millions of American homes. Why not take advantage of this technology to required visitors to "check in" periodically to a Web site that would require them to report where they lived and worked or studied? It would certainly send a message that we actually care whether visitors follow the rules. And it lets the "evildoers," as President Bush calls them, know we're watching them, which might act as a deterrent. I have no faith that the INS can ever reform itself and actually do the job of policing our borders and keeping out the bad guys. Maybe it's time we looked to the private sector to do the job the government clearly isn't performing.