Back on the agenda in Washington: a biometric exit system for travelers

New technologies – and a new commitment from Congress to fund them – are making a reliable exit system for visa holders viable.

In Washington, it's been a rare week of progress on what has been one of Congress’s more protracted issues: setting up an exit system to track the departure of people leaving the country.

For the first time, the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday released a report on how many people entering the United States overstay their visas. Congress has been requesting such data, repeatedly, over the past 20 years.

At the same time, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) deployed a biometric pilot program at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to test facial recognition on some returning US citizens – it's a bid to make such data more reliable. But that move may raise privacy concerns for some.

Lessons learned from this experiment “will inform the use of facial biometric matching during departure,” DHS officials told a Senate oversight hearing on Wednesday.

This rush to show progress is, in part, the result of arm-twisting by a frustrated Congress. In December, Congress gave DHS 30 days to produce the report or lose $13 million in funding for the DHS secretary’s office, effective immediately. 

But it also signals a change in how quickly new technologies – and a new commitment from Congress to fund them – are making a reliable exit system viable.

At this point, people coming in to the US with visas are checked upon entry, law enforcement checks are run, and "if applicable," biometrics such as fingerprints and photo are collected and matched with other DHS databases to identify those who pose a national security threat. But there's nothing in place, proponents say, for when they leave.

Having a biometric exit system would give law enforcement a more accurate sense of who overstays their visas and which ones might represent security concerns.

Such a system is an important start to identify weaknesses in the visa system, says Thomas Kean, former chair of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, known as the 9/11 commission, which led calls for a biometric entry-exit system. "The problem is not just how we're going to check them out when they leave, but how do we find out where they are if they don't leave."

Last month, Congress directed another $1 billion exclusively to a biometric exit system by increasing fees to be collected from those who apply for H-1B or L-1 nonimmigrant work visas.

When Congress first mandated entry-exit tracking, in a rewrite of US immigration law in 1990, the available entry-exit data was biographic, or name-based, and generally viewed as incomplete and unreliable. But after the 9/11 attacks, pressure for a biometric system intensified, especially after the disclosure that four of the 9/11 hijackers had overstayed their visas while planning the attack.

“A number of terrorists came in here on visas and just stayed and nobody knew it because we have, to this day, no way to check when they came in,” Mr. Kean says.

The 9/11 commission recommended that DHS, “properly supported by the Congress, should complete, as quickly as possible, a biometric entry-exit screening system.” Kean says that in all his appearances before Congress, he never saw an objection.

In 2004, the CBP set up such a system at ports of entry, but the exit piece was never implemented.

“The main reason we haven’t seen a biometric exit system implemented is because neither the Bush administration or the Obama administration wanted to do it,” says Jessica Vaughn, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.

“They were afraid that it would slow down the boarding of flights and be too expensive to implement, but the cost has come down significantly,” she adds.

In this week’s report, DHS said that nearly 500,000 of those who came to the US on tourist or business visas stayed on after their visas expired.

“In other words, as of January 4, 2016, DHS has been able to confirm the departures of more than 99 percent of nonimmigrant visitors scheduled to depart in FY 2015 via air and sea POEs [ports of entry] and that number continues to grow,” the report concludes.

That remaining 1 percent is as alarming to critics of US immigration policy on the right, as the “top 1 percent” is to critics of US income inequality on the left.

“While the administration boasted that the overstays represented about 1 percent of nonimmigrant visitors who were supposed to leave the US in FY 2015, there were thousands of overstays from countries associated with Islamic terrorism – including 210 from Afghanistan, 681 from Iraq, 564 from Iran, 1,435 from Pakistan, 440 from Syria, and 219 from Yemen,” reports Breitbart News.

Nor does the report hazard an estimate of how many people in the country illegally overall have overstayed their visas.

“Since an estimated 40-50 percent of unlawfully present foreign citizens (or 4.5-6 million) entered the United States legally and failed to leave the country when required, it is clear that operating on good faith is not the best way to ensure the integrity of our immigration system,” writes Roy Beck in an op-ed in The Hill.

Other current events are raising the profile on creating a reliable exit system. The mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., last month renewed concerns about the US visa program – especially its inability to track those who come in legally but fail to leave.

The issue is also playing out in the presidential election.

In addition to calling for a US-Mexico wall – for which he plans to have Mexico foot the bill – GOP front-runner Donald Trump has called for criminal penalties for those who overstay a visa and “completion of a visa tracking system – required by law but blocked by lobbyists.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, who chaired Wednesday’s Senate panel, noted that there were more visa overstays last year than the population of any city in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina.

Asked (rhetorically) by Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York why he had chosen those three states to mention, Senator Sessions replied: “Because there are three elections coming up.... And perhaps when people go to their election they’re going to consider these type of issues.”

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