WNBC investigative reporter Scott Weinberger reported on Joe Scarborough’s MSNBC show tonight that the 14 Syrians on Northwest Flight 327 ALL had expired visas. He said his sources told him that law enforcement officials xeroxed the men’s paperwork without looking at the dates. The visas had expired nearly a month earlier, according to Weinberger.
This does not give me much confidence in the background checks that the Joint Terrorism Task Force, FBI, and LAPD may or may not have conducted on the men before letting them walk away. Would you trust the terrorism investigation of officials who apparently neglected to verify whether these men–coming from a designated state sponsor of terrorism, flying on a day on which Department of Homeland Security officials had issued a warning about a possible terrorist attack–WERE EVEN IN THE COUNTRY LEGALLY?!?!?!
If Weinberger’s reporting is accurate, I won’t be surprised. The 14 men join a club of at least an estimated 2.3 million illegal visa overstayers currently living in the U.S. today. Until September 11, 2001, the Visa Overstayers Club also included “student” Hani Hanjour and “businessmen and tourist” Nawaf al-Hazmi and Satam al-Suqami.
Flashback: On Scarborough Country (July 19, 2004), former FBI chief of counterterrorism, Steve Pomerantz, commented on the FBI’s investigation of the Syrian band members:
I am struck by the fact that the FBI did turn out. There seemed to be an appropriate and proper response, and they did what sounds to me like a very thorough, exhaustive investigation, during the course of which nobody was charged with a crime, nobody was even detained, which tells me that these people were here legally, legitimately, had official and appropriate and proper documentation, because, as you know, for the last few years in particular, the FBI has not been reluctant to detain people who are here in any way illegally, whether they’re out of status, or whether they have false documentation. That didn’t happen in this case.
Update: Avert your eyes if you are allergic, but some immigration law wonkery is necessary here. Some readers have technical questions for Scott Weinberger. For example:
[A]s you must surely know, just because a person’s visa has expired doesn’t mean they are “out of status.” A person is deemed to have “overstayed” when they have exceeded the time allowed him or her to stay in the U.S. by DHS/ICE. This time is put on the alien’s I-94 card when they enter the U.S. In fact, if the Syrian musicians entered the U.S. on P-1 visas, as I suspect, the visa, i.e., the stamp in their passport issued by the U.S. Consulate, would have expired the instant it was used. Syrian P-1 visas can only be issued for a single entry…And even if they entered with B-2 visas, which can be issued to Syrians with more than one entry, just because the visa itself has expired doesn’t mean they’ve overstayed. To determine whether the Syrians overstayed we’d have to see their I-94 cards.
Right. In lay parlance, partly because of journalists and politicians trying to avoid bureaucratese, “overstaying a visa” is commonly used interchangeably with overstaying the authorized “duration of stay.” I assumed that Weinberger meant the latter and have put in a call asking him for clarification. (See more here for a tutorial on what a visa is and how the visa expiration date differs from the duration of stay date or status determined by DHS at port of entry.)
Update: Still no word back from Scott Weinberger. Meantime, these comments from reader BorderAgent are on point:
Musicians typically have a P-1 visa and without a doubt a Syrian, entering on a P-1 visa would only be allowed a single entry on that visa and the visa would then expire immediately upon entry. The Visa only allows them to enter, while the I-94 allows them to stay here for the duration, whatever that might be, of the I-94.
As Michelle said earlier, in lay parlance, “overstaying a visa” could also mean having an expired I-94. But even then it would not necessarily make them an overstay. You see, you can actually apply for an extension of your I-94 while you are here at an inland office with BCIS. And the funny thing is, when you apply for an extension you are legally allowed to stay, even if you documents expire, until you receive a response, which generally takes longer than 45 days. So basically, you can automatically extend your stay for up to 45 days if you merely receive a peice of paper saying that you are waiting for a response.
Hope that helps clear some things up. A good rule of thumb when dealing with the old INS, now the DHS, is to remember that we have the most strict laws of any agency but have a waiver for everything.
Yeah, that last sentence pretty much sums up our entire immigration (non) policy: A waiver for everything.
Update: From KFI’s Eric Leonard: Air Marshals Say Passenger Overreacted. Excerpt:
FBI agents met the plane when it landed in Los Angeles and the men were questioned, and Los Angeles field office spokeswoman Cathy Viray said it’s significant the alarm on the flight came from a passenger.
“We have to take all calls seriously, but the passenger was worried, not the flight crew or the federal air marshals,” she said. “The complaint did not stem from the flight crew.”
Too bad the flight crew has been barred from confirming this.
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