WASHINGTON – The Homeland Security Department says it has suspended the little-known federal Transit Without Visa program after learning al-Qaida plans to exploit the screening loophole to hijack planes by the end of summer.

But the administration ignored several warnings after the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings to close the loophole.

The Transit Without Visa system, or TWOV, permits more than a million foreign travelers each year to stop
briefly in the U.S. without visas before departing the U.S. for other countries. They thereby avoid U.S. screening. The program accounts for roughly 5 percent
of all foreign-national traffic to the U.S. through airports.

The federal government, even after Sept. 11, left it up to the airlines to police such passengers arriving at the nation’s international airports. It’s been their responsibility to guard and escort them in transit and confirm that they actually departed the country on connecting flights.

But many passengers “escape” the airport and enter the country illegally.

“These people are supposed to be under strict supervision at all times, and the airlines are held responsible for any escapees,” said a U.S. immigration inspector at Los Angeles International Airport.

“But we have people escaping all the time on this program, and the airlines are never held accountable,” he added.

He says the INS, now the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection under the Homeland Security Department, was well aware of the problem before the recent al-Qaida threat to exploit the system.

For one, an INS supervisor at LAX was caught last summer using the system to smuggle aliens into the U.S. from the Philippines, an al-Qaida hotbed.

The supervisor, Max Ramos, had smuggled Filipinos at $10,000 a head for the previous four or five years. His smuggling ring used airline security guards to get the TWOV passengers past Customs. Once on the street, the passengers were escorted to a safe house.

“He was getting ready to graduate to mainland Chinese to smuggle into the U.S. at $50,000 per person, using the same TWOV system,” said the inspector, who requested anonymity.

Ramos, a 20-year INS veteran, recently pleaded guilty to the scheme. One of his convicted co-conspirators – Eshraga Nugud, a Sudanese national who worked for an airline security firm – failed to show up for sentencing and is now a fugitive. Sudan is another al-Qaida hotbed.

In fact, FBI and INS agents suspect that private guards hired by major airlines at LAX “smuggled visa-less Middle Eastern passengers elsewhere into the United States as part of organized rings,” said immigration-reform advocate Michelle Malkin, author of “Invasion.”

Also, the INS from 1999 to 2002 had cited airlines around 6,000 times for failing to provide documentation confirming TWOV passengers had left U.S. airports in a timely manner.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, moreover, the Justice Department inspector general issued a report citing lapses in the transit program and argued for “immediate action to enhance national security,” Malkin noted.

The administration has been reluctant to kill the TWOV program primarily because of travel-industry lobbying, immigration officials say. The airlines argue eliminating the program would inconvenience travelers and hurt business.

“The airline and tourism industry will say eliminating these programs would be too costly and unfair,” Malkin said. “Tell them to ask the widows and children of Sept. 11 victims about bearing unjust burdens.”

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