Keeping track of foreign visitors to the United States was a fairly slipshod operation before Sept. 11. The millions of people legally here with visas, plus millions of others who overstayed their visas or fraudulently obtained them, were just too hard to trace.
That was then. Since last fall's terrorist attacks, the government has made a determined effort to construct better systems for tracking foreigners. A prime example of this is the Justice Department's new plan for student visas. Among other things, it will establish data links to all US schools with foreign students to be sure people enroll as planned.
This involves some inconvenience for students and schools, but the government has no choice but to tighten this program. Two of the 9/11 hijackers were attending flight schools on student visas.
Another area of concern is the amount of false documentation in circulation. The inspector general of the Social Security Administration estimates that 100,000 Social Security cards were illegally obtained by foreigners in 2000. The applicants had presented forgeries of documents issued by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Clearly, the Social Security agency and the INS need to coordinate their data to keep track of who has legitimate documentation.
Sounds simple, but it's bureaucratically complex. But, again, there's no choice. Social Security cards have become virtual keys to US society, whether to open a bank account or to apply for work as an airport security guard.
Keeping track of every visa holder and stopping the traffic in bogus ID papers is a huge, but long overdue, undertaking.