PHOENIX — U.S. Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) pointed to visa overstays as a national security problem during a homeland security hearing on Tuesday.
“With this year’s number of border apprehensions at record lows, visa overstays are a much, much bigger problem than it has been historically,” McSally said. “We have to keep the DHS focused on both problem sets – illicit traffic that crosses the land border and the growing problem of visa overstays.”
A report published Monday from the Department of Homeland Security found that nearly 740,000 foreigners overstayed their visas at some point in 2016, with 544,000 overstays remaining by January.
There were 739,478 overstays from October 2015 through September 2016 among visitors who arrive by plane or ship — more than the population of Alaska.
“To put that number into context, we only apprehended 310,000 unique individuals crossing the land border illegally last year, meaning we had almost twice as many overstays as people apprehended at the land border,” McSally said Tuesday.
Overstays accounted for 1.5 percent of the 50.4 million visitors who arrived by plane or ship in the latest period, Homeland Security said.
Canada occupied the top slot for overstays among business travelers and tourists, followed by Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela and the United Kingdom. Germany, Colombia, China, India and Italy rounded out the top 10.
The overstay rate was much higher among students and foreign exchange visitors, with 79,818 of 1.5 million, or 5.5 percent, staying after their visas expired. China had the largest number of student overstays, followed by Saudi Arabia, South Korea, India and Brazil.
During her opening statement, McSally also claimed that visa overstays have “historically been the primary means for terrorist entry into the United States,” and argued for a “greater emphasis on the visa process as a counterterrorism tool.”
McSally proposed that “adding a reliable exit system” will allow national security officials to “focus their efforts on preventing terrorist attacks and [spend] time tracking down people who are still in the country.”
Her comments come one day after 22-year-old Salman Abedi, a suicide bomber with possible ties to the Islamic State, is suspected to have killed at least 23 people and injured 59 more at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England.
Abedi is a Libyan who was born and raised in the United Kingdom.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.