Wednesday night, Donald Trump attacked the Obama administration’s failure to enforce the law against people who overstay their visas. “We must send the message that visa expiration dates will be strongly enforced,” he declared. But as with many of his promises, delivering won’t be easy. Although it’s a glaringly big security gap, both the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly tried and failed to overcome the hurdles necessary to plug it.
In early 2002, while I was researching my book on the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, I sat in on a meeting in the vice president’s ornate conference room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House. A group of senior executives from the giant defense contractor Raytheon, which had just formed a homeland security capture team, had arranged through a lobbyist-friend of Scooter Libby’s to make a presentation to former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and his staff of what one of the Raytheon team promised as the meeting began was “a simple solution to one of your biggest problems.”
The problem was that millions of foreigners who are admitted on tourist or business visas for three to six months never leave. They just disappear into America. According to various estimates, these overstays make up a third to more than half of the 10 to 20 million illegal aliens in the country. That meant that solving the overstay problem was as important—or maybe more important—than building fences and hiring border-patrol agents to catch people sneaking in. In fact, five of the 19 September 11 hijackers had been overstays.