U.S. immigration agents waste their time logging in and out of archaic computer systems while trying to track down foreigners suspected of overstaying their visas only to find out later that many visa holders have left the country, said a government watchdog report released Thursday.
Agents and analysts must use 10 to 40 passwords to access the computer systems and 40 percent of the cases investigated one year turned out not to be overstays, said the report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General.
The report also disclosed that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have been locked out of computer systems for periods ranging from several minutes to days. Some agents kept their passwords written out on their desks, creating a security risk, the report said.
One agent said nearly one in five of the visa holders he investigated had already left the country, and pursuing those leads took 225 hours of his time, according to the report.
"The time being wasted on investigating false leads increased the risk that legitimate overstays were being overlooked," the report said.
The report addresses an issue that the administration of President Donald Trump will have to solve as he makes immigration enforcement a top priority of his administration.
People who overstay their visas have become the main source of illegal immigration in the U.S. in recent years, representing a sizable portion of the population that the new administration has vowed to arrest and deport.
In cases where immigration authorities have located immigrants with visa overstays, their arrests have generated controversy.
For example, on the day before the inspector general released the report, protesters took to the streets in Utah to demonstrate against the arrest of a Mexican immigrant who overstayed her visa in 1993 and was arrested outside a craft store last week.
"Visa security is a matter of national security, and it is imperative that we know who is coming to our country and when they leave so that we protect American citizens and our interests," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said in response to the report.
Many of the computer systems used by the agents were inherited by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security when it was created in 2003, two years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The old technology plus insufficient training for agents hampers their ability to monitor the immigration status and whereabouts of visa holders who travel to the U.S. for business, vacation, studies or other reasons, the report said.
"As a result, it may take months for ICE to determine a visa holder's status and whether that person may pose a national security threat," the inspector general's office said.
A key problem outlined in the report is the lack of a system to track when visa holders leave the country. While visitors are screened when they enter the U.S., the government has been slow to track their departures.
The problems are deeply frustrating for immigration agents, said Claude Arnold, a former special agent-in-charge for ICE's homeland security investigations in Los Angeles.
"They take all the time to run a bunch of other databases to locate the person. They go out and knock on doors," he said. "And then, they go to the last place of residence, and they knock on the door, and 'Oh, that person left the country.'"
More than 500,000 foreigners who entered the U.S. on non-immigrant visas during the year ending in September 2015 stayed longer than allowed, the report said. That's out of roughly 45 million visitors who came to the United States that year.
The U.S. government has launched a biometric screening pilot program for visa holders who leave the U.S. from Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. It plans to expand it to other airports in 2018.
Under the pilot program, U.S. Customs and Border Protection combine traveler and airline data with images taken of passengers to confirm their departure, the report said.
The biometric screening exit system was a recommendation of the federal commission that that investigated the 2001 terror attacks. Two attack perpetrators were found to have overstayed their visas.
The U.S. issued more than 10 million non-immigrant visas from October 2014 through September of 2015.
Visitors who overstay their visas are investigated to determine whether they have applied for immigration benefits, left the country or pose a security risk.
Homeland Security officials agreed with the report's findings.