The Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, will need to establish a status for undocumented workers until full adjudication for citizenship or other permanent status can be determined. In this process the DHS must confirm that any applicant for citizenship does not have a criminal record and is not on a terrorist watch list. In order to undertake this effort accurately, the department will need to rely upon biometrics.
Biometrics utilizes a unique, measurable biological characteristic such as a fingerprint, iris or facial pattern for identity recognition. This characteristic is unique to the individual, is difficult to falsify, and can be used to safeguard biographical information about a person. Today, biometric technology can be seen in airports, on cruise ships, in passports, and even at theme parks and gymnasiums.
The technology is not without critics. Some opponents claim biographic information – written records or documents – can accomplish the same task as biometrics. Others cite difficulty of implementation, while others perceive a higher cost. These criticisms fall short on every count.
Perhaps the most significant misperception regarding biometrics is that biographical records can provide roughly the same quality of data as biometric records. Biographical documents, such as a driver’s license, can be easily faked, forged, lost or stolen. In fact, a 2012 Government Accountability Office study noted that its investigators were able to obtain driver licenses in three states using fraudulent documents. While there are ways to enhance biographical identity cards, such as employing PIN numbers, these cards simply do not provide the same degree of certainty as a biometric form of identification. Card authentication only confirms that the card is genuine. It says nothing about the individual presenting the card.
Cards and PIN numbers can be stolen, shared with others or coerced from the holder’s possession. If the U.S. relies on biographical data for immigrant accreditation, it could unwittingly create a massive black market for these cards that can be exploited by drug cartels, organized crime and terrorists and potentially enable the naturalization of criminals and terrorists while depriving deserving applicants of status. We are already seeing evidence of this in other places around the world where biometric data is not associated with the biographic data. Cards are just too easy to falsify, steal, or lose.
Another misperception is that such a system would be too difficult to implement. There are numerous examples around the world of low-cost wide-scale implementation of biometric data systems. The Canadian government currently operates a highly efficient biometric guest worker program that employs a biometric system that supports the entry and exit of tens of thousands of guest workers every year for seasonal work.
The U.S. government already has the existing infrastructure to implement a biometric immigration and naturalization process with the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program (U.S. VISIT). Established in 2004, this program records the entry of all foreign nationals to the United States by collecting biometric information of digital fingerprints and photographs. U.S. immigration officials could easily deploy biometric enrollment kiosks at fixed locations around the country while fielding mobile enrollment kits to facilitate enrollment in a variety of settings, including the workplace.
Lastly, critics miss the mark by claiming a biometric solution is too costly to implement. However, the modest costs of biometric enrollment could be borne by the enrollee, making the program financially self sufficient. Right now school teachers in the U.S. must participate in a biometric background check before they can enter the classroom and pay a fee in order to do so. Surely DHS can require the same of those seeking a path to U.S. citizenship or legal status, especially for those who have illegally entered the United States.
From banking to healthcare to unlocking your Smartphone — biometrics are rapidly becoming a reality for people everywhere. Should immigration reform become a reality the U.S. should embrace this powerful technology to make sure the job gets done right.
Buckley is the Chief Executive Officer at Cross Match Technologies.