The alleged plot to blow up a Dallas office tower highlights a major weakness of the US government- keeping track of overstaying visitors.
Just like the millions of others classified by the government as illegal immigrants, the Jordanian teen accused of plotting to blow up a Dallas office tower recently, arrived in the United States legally and stayed long after his visa expired.
Federal immigration officials said that Hosam Smadi, 19, arrived on a visitor visa, not a student visa as initially believed, in spring 2007.
The difference is crucial: For foreign students, dropping out of school triggers a report to a central database and, often, a follow-up by the immigration authorities. For those who arrive as tourists or workers, it's almost certain authorities won't take notice unless they apply for a driver's license, get pulled over or arrested or call attention to themselves.
Officials in several federal agencies were reluctant to say much more about Smadi, citing the ongoing investigation. It's unclear when Smadi or his parents obtained the visa – Jordanians can receive visas that expire in five years, so he could have been as young as 11 or 12.
Once a visa-holder arrives with a "B2" visitor visa – the type that Smadi apparently received – he has six months to seek an extension or leave the United States.
Jordanian authorities say he spent time in detention when he was 14 or so, for a theft his father says he had reported to teach his son a lesson. It's unclear if the U.S. authorities knew about that case, nor whether it would have held up his visa if they did.
However he got into the US, and however long he stayed, Smadi came under scrutiny because, the FBI alleges, he expressed jihadist views on a monitored Web site.
"Unfortunately, a lot of people are coming in for the wrong reasons – to harm Americans or kill Americans, rather than as an innocent tourist," said Rep. Lamar Smith of San Antonio, the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. "Once you come into the country on a tourist visa, you've passed 'Go.' People know they're home free and there's no effort made to keep track of them."
In 1996, Smith wrote a bill – signed into law by President Bill Clinton – requiring the federal government to create a system to track both the entry and exit of foreign visitors. Thirteen years later, it's still a work in progress.
The Homeland Security Department has been building a system called U.S.-VISIT for several years.
The system compares biometric data with security databases, mostly to ensure that a foreigner arriving at a U.S. airport or land crossing isn't using someone else's passport. The data is stored. But, since most ports of entry don't identify departing foreigners, it's almost useless for tracking how many people – let alone which individuals – stayed longer than they were supposed to.
Officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, don't dispute that.
Four of the hijackers involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had overstayed their visas, and that issue has vexed policymakers and informed the nation's immigration debate for years.
Immigrant advocates agree that relatively little effort is expended to track down people who overstay their visas – though, unlike Smith and others, they say that's fine.
"The government doesn't monitor computers and say: 'Aha.' Quite honestly, we don't have the resources for that," said Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "Mostly what you'll pick up are people who are just trying to earn a living. I would rather see those resources spent on people who really mean us harm."
The immigration department has a National Fugitive Operations Program that tracks down foreigners who arrived without permission, and also those who arrived legally but stayed longer than their visas allowed. The top priority is to find people who pose a threat to public safety – people with known terrorist links or criminal records, or active arrest warrants.
A teenager with no known criminal record would not rise to the top of such a list.
The immigration agency posts a list of 15 "most-wanted criminal aliens." Not one is wanted for an act of terrorism. Most are accused of human smuggling or lewd acts involving children.
After Sept. 11, the government required males age between 16 and 70 from a number of countries, most of them predominantly Muslim, to report their whereabouts. The backlash was intense, and the program was largely abandoned.
Washington is spending about $300 million per year implementing US-VISIT (the acronym stands for Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology).
"We are at the same place we were before 9/11," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates immigration restriction. "There's been some but not much progress."