NEW YORK — The United States knows when visitors carrying visas enter the country, but it has no idea when, or if, most of those people leave.
Congress ordered that key flaw in the immigration system to be fixed as far back as 1996 – in part because as many as 100,000 people overstay their visas annually and join the ranks of undocumented workers. But the 9/11 attacks gave the request new impetus: The 9/11 commission in 2004 recommended that the loophole be closed, and the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act mandated that it be done "as expeditiously as possible."
By the end of this year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) expects to have a system in place to track people who leave by air or by sea. But it has decided to abandon its efforts to track the exits of foreigners who depart through the nation's border checkpoints on land.
Tuesday, top DHS officials will go before the Senate Judiciary Committee to explain the department's rationale.
"Land presents somewhat of a challenge," says the DHS official who confirmed that the land exit program was being suspended. "We're still looking into doing it at some point in time; it might be a number of years."
The problem, according to DHS, is that the technology doesn't yet exist to create an entry/exit program for people who cross by land – at least not without causing huge traffic delays that would disrupt commerce and daily life in border towns.
Critics say the real problem is a lack of political will and confused priorities. They charge that DHS has set the technical bar too high – for instance, requiring the system to be able to check people's exit from the country while they're driving by at 50 miles per hour.
The controversy over the entry/exit program, which is called US Visit, illustrates not only the difficulty of securing US borders physically, but also the larger question of how best to use limited resources to improve security in a post-9/11 world. Advocates of a comprehensive exit and entry program say it is crucial to security, because the nation must know who's leaving as well as who's coming into the US. Indeed, two of the 9/11 hijackers had overstayed their visas.
"We have to recognize that there are very real threats and it still is an international border – people who've become used to quick and easy crossings have to understand that there are very compelling reasons now to change the way they do business," says Jessica Vaughan, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. "Maybe just-in-time manufacturing was fine in 2000 when you could get a truckload of stuff across the border very quickly and easily, but things are different now."
Critics of US Visit say it's a waste of valuable resources to focus on the 309 million people who cross the nation's land borders annually. More than 70 percent of those who cross regularly are truck drivers, workers, or people going to visit family across the border. The vast majority of the rest are vacationers.
"I understand the politics as to why we'd like to target temporary visitors, students, and others, but I haven't seen ... a really cogent analysis about why [it] would be better to put billions of dollars into that as opposed to training people to speak foreign languages and infiltrating groups that are suspicious," says Allan Wernick, a professor at Baruch College in New York and chairman of the Citizenship and Immigration Project.
DHS is testing its exit-verification program at 12 airports and two seaports. It has set up kiosks where visitors swipe their travel documents as well as have two fingerprints and a picture recorded to ensure they are indeed the person who came in on that visa. By the end of the year, DHS plans to have that system operating at the 80 US airports that accommodate international travelers.
DHS also had a pilot program at five land ports. That system used radio frequency technology to scan a chip in people's visas when they drove out of the country into Canada or Mexico. The goal was for it to work if cars were driving as fast as 50 miles an hour.
"That's unrealistic. Even with E-ZPass you have to slow down to five miles per hour," says Ms. Vaughan, in a reference to a toll-tracking card used by commuters.
A DHS spokesperson said the radio frequency technology failed in part because it couldn't prove that the people carrying the visas with the microchip were the same ones who came into the country – a congressional requirement. A recent General Accountability Office study found that to meet the mandate that the exit program be biometric, DHS would have to spend billions to expand border crossings and hire new staff to prevent huge traffic back-ups at the border.
A DHS spokeswoman defends delaying the implementation at land ports until the technology is available to make it viable to use the biometric visa identifiers – such as fingerprints – at the land ports of entry.
"We've had success by incrementally phasing the program in at airports, and that's what's resulted in no traffic buildup. And we will be phasing it in sometime in the future at land ports," says Anna Hinken, a US Visit spokeswoman. "Biometrics is the future. "These types of systems require resources and planning. It's not something that happens overnight."