Solving visa overstays: How technology can lead to reform

Solving visa overstays: How technology can lead to reform
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President Trump’s decision to potentially wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is yet another example of the incredibly divisive nature of immigration policy where the country seemingly has been unable to find consensus. Yet 2017 has actually seen incredible progress on a critical area of immigration policy that has bedeviled Washington for over 20 years.

In May, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a report showing that 99 percent of foreign visitors leave the U.S. on time. Our border agencies should be commended for this achievement and for both collecting the data and providing it as part of a transparent reporting process. Unfortunately, some press outlets said this wasn’t enough, since there are still around 600,000 people who overstayed their welcome. So what’s the real story?

First, a little history. Pre-9/11, little attention was paid to either in-bound or out-bound border security even though a 1996 law mandated an entry/exit tracking system at our borders.

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In the years after 9/11, DHS built a world class entry system using biometric identifiers like fingerprints and biographic information from airline manifests and improved travel documents such as passports. Since 2007, essentially every traveler to the U.S. has been vetted through an elaborate series of watch-list checks to identify risks and imposters.

However, with neither our airports nor land borders configured to check people out of the country, the government has struggled for many additional years to build the “exit” part of entry-exit. Congressional leaders sent mixed signals on the value of a biometric system, and airlines resisted being enlisted in the immigration enforcement fight. Our immigration enforcement agents rightfully focused on serious criminals, not somebody whose business trip ran a few days over.

More recently, DHS has developed confidence in using biographic information to issue two detailed annual reports on the rate of overstays. The good news: overstays for visa holders hovers around 1.5 percent.

The better news: The overstay rate for travelers on the Visa Waiver Program from 39 close allies has dropped all the way to 0.6 percent, or 1 in every 167 travelers. And this summer DHS began implementing the biometric outbound check using facial recognition software to confirm identities without slowing down already congested airline gate checkpoints.

All good progress, but more can be done.

First, in an era of apps and social media check-ins, the Departments of State and Homeland Security need to provide email and text alerts to all travelers warning them of their required departure date and then thanking them for their on-time departure — these travelers are essentially customers of the United States and should be treated as such. While CBP has been sending email notifications to VWP overstays since May, this initiative needs to be expanded to all travelers before they miss their departure date.

Second, a new initiative to identify, warn and if necessary remove recent visa overstays should be fully funded and implemented. As we have seen in the bitter fight over immigration reform, every day, week or month that a foreign visitor remains in the U.S. creates additional ties to the country — employment, family, community connections — that make a departure more disruptive to our families and businesses.

Lastly, we should dangle the goal of visa-free travel to foreign governments if they will help educate their citizens on our rules and improve the rate on-time departures from our shores.

The fact is, our visa and entry systems are the best in the world – promoting American safety and security while maintaining efficiency and a process that’s welcoming. With some important improvements, by the end of the Trump administration’s first term, our country should have the best entry-exit system in the world.

That would be the rare immigration achievement that would garner praise across the political spectrum.

C. Stewart Verdery, Jr. served as assistant secretary of Homeland Security from 2003-05 and is CEO of Monument Policy Group, a Washington, D.C. public affairs and lobbying firm.