WASHINGTON – By the time the suspect in an alleged bomb plot against the U.S. Capitol was arrested in a parking lot, wearing what he thought was an explosive-laden suicide vest, he had been living illegally in the United States for 12 years.
The criminal case against Amine El Khalifi, 29, of Alexandria, Va., has renewed the debate about how the U.S. government — a decade after the terror attacks of 2001 — routinely fails to track millions of foreign visitors who remain in the country longer than they are allowed.
The Obama administration doesn't consider deporting people whose only offense is overstaying a visa a priority. It has focused immigration enforcement efforts on people who have committed serious crimes or are considered a threat to public or national security.
A House Homeland Security subcommittee is conducting an oversight hearing Tuesday. The panel's chairwoman, Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., said El Khalifi "follows a long line of terrorists, including several of the 9/11 hijackers, who overstayed their visa and went on to conduct terror attacks." His tourist visa expired the same year he arrived from his native Morocco as a teenager in 1999.
"We have to recognize that we do have this problem," Miller said. "The truth is, in the 40 percentile of all the illegal (immigrants) are in this country on expired visas. They came in right through the front door."
El Khalifi, who is charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, never came to the attention of federal law enforcement agencies even after a series of minor run-ins with police in northern Virginia from 2002 to 2006, including disobeying a traffic sign and speeding. Programs that could have identified him if he had been jailed by local authorities, including the Security Communities program that shares fingerprints from local jails with the FBI, were not in place at the time.
The Moroccan national didn't face a felony charge — possession of marijuana with intent to distribute — until last September, about nine months after he became the target of the FBI probe related to the alleged plot to destroy the Capitol. He has waived his right to a preliminary hearing.
El Khalifi, unemployed when he was arrested last month, is one of an estimated millions of illegal immigrants who came to the United States with a government-issued visa and never left. He never applied to become a U.S. citizen.
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.
Last year, ICE reviewed a backlog of about 1.6 million suspected overstay cases involving people who had come to the U.S. since 2004. The Homeland Security Department said the review concluded that about half of those people have either left the country or applied to change their immigration status. Of the remaining half, the cases of about 2,700 people were given further review. ICE officials have not said how many of those people were deemed a national security threat or were otherwise considered priority for deportation.
For the more than 797,000 others whose cases were not reviewed further, DHS officials said their overstay status was noted in electronic files in case any of them commit crimes in the future or otherwise become a priority to be deported.
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.
Miller supports an exit program that uses biometric data collected when people are issued visas and when they enter the country. DHS officials, including Secretary Janet Napolitano, have agreed but say such a system is too costly.
John Cohen, Homeland Security's principal deputy coordinator for counterterrorism, 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.
"Improvements made by ICE, CBP (Customs and Border Protection) and US-Visit ... will continue to improve our efforts to better vet visa overstays," Cohen said. "These same improvements will also enhance our exit capabilities and are an important part of our larger effort to reduce the backlog of visa overstays."
But finding illegal immigrants who, like El Khalifi, came to the United States before biometric data was collected and records were computerized around 2004 — and who overstayed visas but haven't committed a crime — can be difficult, if not impossible.
"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.
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."
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.
Alicia A. Caldwell can be reached at www.twitter.com/acaldwellap