Feds Can't Locate Thousands Who Had Visas Revoked Over Terrorism Concerns

Image: Feds Can't Locate Thousands Who Had Visas Revoked Over Terrorism Concerns House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, swears in Alan Bersin, assistant secretary for international affairs at the Homeland Security Department, Dec. 17 on Capitol Hill. (AP)

By Greg Richter   |   Thursday, 17 Dec 2015

The United States has revoked 122,000 visas 9,500 over terrorism concerns since 2001, but doesn't know where all those former visa-holders are, according to congressional testimony on Thursday.

Michele Thoren Bond, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, was grilled before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where Republican Chairman Jason Chaffetz charged, "You don't have a clue, do you?"

When asked where those people currently are, Bond admitted, "I don't know."

Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Leon Rodriguez told the committed that checks are not being made in regularly and didn't give details of when or how such checks might be made, Fox News reports. 

"If half the employers are doing it in the United States of America, if colleges are doing it for students, why wouldn't Homeland Security do it?" Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat asked. "We don't even look at their public stuff, that's what kills me."

DHS has run programs to look at social media posts, Rodriguez said, but they have not yielded good results.

"There is less there that is actually of screening value than you would expect, at least in small early samples, some things seem more ambiguous than clear," Rodriguez said. "We all continue to believe there's a potential for there to be information of screening value... particularly in high-risk environments."

Immigration and keeping Americans safe from terror attacks have become major issues in the 2016 presidential campaign, especially since the Dec. 2 San Bernardino, California, shooting rampage, in which 14 people died, and the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, which killed 130 people.

U.S. officials have acknowledged that no one was routinely checking visa applicants' social media postings at the time when an application came in from Tashfeen Malik, one of the two shooters in the San Bernardino killings.

Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, never expressed support for "jihad and martyrdom" publicly on social media, but they discussed it via private communications, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey said on Wednesday.

Chaffetz said the department had "made the really wrong call" by not using social media accounts to screen visa applications before.

"It is unclear how someone who so openly discussed her hatred of our country and way of life could easily pass three background checks," he said. "We need to understand how the breakdown happened with Malik and what we are doing to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Lynch said the department should have better scrutinized the social media accounts of Malik when she applied for her visa.

"We should have said, 'We want your social media, both your private stuff and your public stuff.' That's entirely reasonable to ask people who are coming from countries that are known to sponsor terror," said Lynch.

A $1.1 trillion government spending bill expected to pass Congress later this week would require citizens of countries that participate in a visa waiver program with the United States to submit to interviews if they have visited "high-risk" countries such as Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan since March 2011.

The DHS also drew criticism from lawmakers on Thursday for not releasing a report on how many foreigners in the United States have overstayed their visas.

Up to 500,000 of all U.S. visa holders overstay their visas each year, said DHS's chief diplomatic officer Alan Bersin.

In the past fiscal year, the department has opened 118 investigations into Syrians who overstayed their U.S. visas, he said. Eleven of those investigations resulted in administrative arrests and 18 are continuing.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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