A House Homeland Security panel will hold a hearing on Tuesday on why a suspect who was allegedly accused of planning a bomb against the U.S. Capitol was able to stay in the U.S. illegally undetected for 12 years.
Amine El Khalifi, 29, came to the United States as a teenager in 1999 and his visa expired that same year. He was arrested in February in an FBI sting while wearing what he believed to be a explosive-laden suicide vest.
But Khalifi, who is charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction in the U.S. Capitol, never came to the attention of federal law enforcement agencies even after a few minor run-ins, like speeding, with Virginia law in 2002-2006. The programs that could have identified him, even if he were jailed locally, were not in place at that time.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for deporting illegal immigrants, has routinely combed through visa records to try to identify people who have overstayed their welcome and deport those considered threats to the community or national security. DHS officials have not said how many people have been put into deportation proceedings as a result of those reviews.
John Cohen, Homeland Security's principal deputy coordinator for counter-terrorism, said the department is using data collected under its US-Visit program, which records fingerprints, photographs and other information for nearly every non-U.S. citizen entering the country.
``It's very difficult to find those individuals, and those individuals aren't priorities until they commit a crime,'' said Julie Myers Wood, who was head of ICE from 2006 to 2008.
Visa overstays have long been a concern of lawmakers and law enforcement. Some estimates suggest that as many as half of the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants have overstayed visas.
James Ziglar, who was head of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service from 2001 until it was folded into DHS in 2002, said immigration authorities made efforts to locate immigrants thought to be a threat to national security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But simply having overstayed a visa wouldn't have made illegal immigrants like El Khalifi a priority.
``We were certainly focused on trying to find bad people and connecting the dots with the Department of State and their visa records,'' Ziglar said. ``I doubt very seriously he (El Khalifi) would have come up on the radar. He might have if you kept drilling down further and further just because of where he was from. But he would not have been, I think, an earlier target, just because there were more suspicious types.''
The Obama administration doesn't consider people whose only offense is overstaying their visa a priority for deportation. It has focused immigration enforcement efforts on people who have committed serious crimes or are considered a threat to public or national security.