Mohana Ravindranath | Nextgov | May 4, 2017 | 0 Comments

Travelers May Overstay Visas Because of Tech Struggles

Airline passengers stand in line as they wait to rebook their canceled flight at the American Airlines counter at Miami International Airport, March 13, 2017. Alan Diaz/AP

IT problems might allow foreign travelers to overstay their legal welcome in the United States.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement's fragmented IT systems, which often aren't interoperable, could be causing the agency to miss instances of visa overstays, according to the Homeland Security Department's Office of the Inspector General.

In some cases, ICE personnel cobble together data from up to 27 disparate DHS databases to identify individuals and to establish whether they technically overstayed their visa or if they constitute a national security threat. That means it could take ICE months to resolve a case.

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The United States has at least 1.2 million visa overstays in backlog, according to the OIG.

OIG has already concluded DHS needs, but doesn't yet have, a system that would collect biometric data from foreigners leaving the country and ensure it matches when they entered. That would prevent travelers from leaving the country under a different identity.

But because DHS lacks an effective biometric exit system, according to the OIG, it can't do such tracking. Instead, it often relies on third-party data, including passenger lists provided by commercial airlines, to check traveler identity.

“Timely identification, tracking and adjudication of potential visa overstays is critical to ICE’s public safety and national security mission," Inspector General John Roth said in a statement.

DHS has been dinged on visa overstays before. In February, the Government Accountability Office also concluded DHS needs a better biometric exit system, instead of using an “unreliable collection of departure data."

Currently, Customs and Border Protection has four such exit systems in the pilot stage, including mobile fingerprint readers and facial scanners, but it still encounters significant infrastructure and staffing problems. DHS' goal is to set up a full-fledged system at one airport by 2018.