WASHINGTON (CN) - Deportations of visa overstays under the Obama administration have steadily decreased since 2009, according to a House Republican who grilled Homeland Security on the issue Tuesday.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said the Obama Administration deported 12,500 overstays in 2009. Last year, that number dropped down to 2,500, he said during a Homeland Security hearing on visa overstays.
Smith did not provide the source of those numbers upon request, though his press secretary responded with a May press release
from Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. The press release generally cites U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics.
Though Homeland Security officials called to testify at the Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee could not verify those figures on the spot, none of the four witnesses rejected or contested them.
Visa overstays constitute an estimated 40 percent of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., but can get overshadowed by unlawful border crossers. Homeland Security estimates that nearly 99 percent of non-immigrant travelers admitted to the country leave on time. But that one percent constituted 355,000 people in 2015 alone, according to Kelli Burriesci with Homeland Security.
The failure of the administration to deport greater numbers of visa overstays "sounds to me like an extension of the administration's amnesty program," Smith said.
Congress took up the issue of visa overstays in earnest following the Paris terror attacks last year and amid growing concerns that terror groups could exploit the U.S. visa program to enter the country.
The fears are not entirely unfounded - several of the 9/11 hijackers overstayed their visas. But Homeland Security says it lacks the resources to carry out massive deportations and instead focuses on removing high-risk overstays.
Craig Healy with Homeland Security said the agency utilized about 100 analysts who expended 650,000 hours vetting system-generated high-risk overstays last year.
"Approximately one percent, or roughly 10,000 leads were determined to potentially pose a national security or public safety concern," Healy said.
Many of those were not high risk, according to Healy, who said the agency has 3,000 ongoing investigations, but closed roughly 4,000 after the vetting process determined they were in compliance with their visas.
"The remaining leads are in continuous monitoring for further investigation," Healy said.
The agency made more than 1,900 arrests, including 139 criminal arrests, and secured 86 indictments and 80 convictions, he said.
Members of the subcommittee pressed the officials for an implementation date on a biometric exit system, something Congress has required since 2007 but which the agency has yet to comply with.
Homeland Security rolled out several pilot projects last year and launched another one yesterday in Atlanta. Homeland Security's John Wagner said the new pilot will test the ability of its information systems to compare facial images of departing travelers against previous images of the same travelers.
Wagner called it the logical next step in building upon the agency's previous pilot programs and said it will integrate the data into their backend systems. The officials told the subcommittee that a biometric exit system will be ready to roll out in the fall of 2018. Healy noted that the system will improve Homeland Security's vetting efficiency in tracking and removing overstays.