U.S. immigration officials told Congress Wednesday that they need more information from intelligence agencies to stop suspected terrorists from entering the United States.
At least three of the 19 hijackers who carried out the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington were in the country illegally and several others may have used false names to gain entry.
Congress is now looking at ways to tighten the immigration system in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas is the top Republican on a Senate subcommittee that deals with immigration issues. "Given that the persons responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon came from overseas, our citizens are understandably asking how these people entered the United States and what can be done to prevent their kind from doing so again," said Senator Brownback.
Immigration officials told lawmakers Wednesday that shoring up the system will take time, money, and effort.
James Ziglar is commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He says there are more than $350 million border crossings by non-citizens each year, making it extremely difficult to track visitors who overstay their visas.
Mr. Ziglar also says it is essential that immigration authorities get better cooperation from U.S. intelligence agencies to help them be on the lookout for suspected terrorists. "The sharing of data and making that data available to all people interested in this process is absolutely critical for us to have a good line of defense against people who are coming into this country and who want to do harm to our country," he said.
In addition to asking for more border guards and immigration inspectors, federal officials are also moving to deploy advanced face-recognition technology that can help identify suspected terrorists through facial characteristics even if they use false names.
Mary Ryan is assistant secretary of state for consular affairs. "We will soon test the abilities of facial recognition software to compare visa applicants to a sample database of photographs of suspected terrorists," she said. "We seek to expand the pool of such photographs through liaison with other government agencies."
Immigration officials estimate that about two million non-citizens are currently overstaying their visas, and that number is expected to grow by 125,000 each year.
Congress is expected to consider legislation soon that would provide more money and personnel for immigration control and a tightening of the U.S. border with Canada as part of the widening U.S. campaign against terrorism.