U.S. weak in foreign-visitor tracking, particularly departure enforcement


As with many new programs, DHS has had difficulty implementing key portions of the US-VISIT program, resulting in many frustrating delays. For example, the US-VISIT program was intended to meet the biometric entry and exit matching requirements of the 9/11 Commission Act, which became law in 2007. While there is currently a US-VISIT entry system in place at U.S. airports, the corresponding exit component has not yet been implemented.

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The absence of a viable exit program, and the effect that has had on our national security, are topics I would like to address here.

Currently, 35 countries participate in our Visa Waiver program, which allows pre-screened foreigners to enter the United States without a visa for up to 90 days.  Unfortunately, DHS does not have an effective system in place to ensure these visitors leave the U.S. on or before the 90-day mark. As a result, visa overstays have been and continue to be a significant security problem. Indeed, of the estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States, approximately 40 percent overstayed their visas. Many of these individuals entered the country through our airports, rather than our land borders with Mexico and Canada.

As vice chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Committee and Chairwoman of the Subcommittee with direct oversight of the US-VISIT exit program, I find this situation to be unacceptable. Without a credible and functional exit system that documents the arrival — and departure — of foreign travelers, it will be nearly impossible to reduce visa overstays. Although my colleagues in the House Homeland Security Committee and I think the Visa Waiver program has significant potential, we are hesitant to expand the program to other countries until US-VISIT has a viable exit component.

My subcommittee has conducted several oversight hearings on this issue, and recently received an update from DHS regarding its plans to implement the exit component of US-VISIT. The briefing included an update on two pilot exit programs that were conducted by the department this summer. The first pilot program consisted of Customs and Border Protection officers literally “checking” visitors out of the country at Detroit Metro Airport’s departure gates. The second pilot program was conducted at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints.

These pilot programs are consistent with my belief that controlling the ingress into and egress out of our country is an inherently federal responsibility. During the Bush administration, DHS attempted to require the airline industry to collect and maintain traveler-sensitive biometric information as part of the US-VISIT exit program. The problem then is the same as it is now; private industry should not be tasked with implementing a federal program and I will continue to be opposed to any proposed exit program that requires airlines to be responsible for collecting sensitive biometric information.

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This coming spring, DHS is expected to announce its preferred US-VISIT air exit program. Implementing either of the systems that were tested this summer would likely require a significant increase in CBP or TSA personnel or a major reallocation of resources at airports. Given DHS’s ambitious timeline for implementing this program and the logistical issues airports will likely face, it is troubling that DHS did not request any new funds for its preferred exit solution for fiscal year 2010. I am concerned that this lack of planning could further hamper the implementation of a US-VISIT air exit program.

In addition to developing a functional US-VISIT air exit program, DHS must also formulate a plan to implement the program at our land borders with Canada and Mexico. Given the vast number of travelers who pass through our northern and southern borders, securing these entry points will likely be a lengthy and costly process. I am committed to working closely with DHS, much like I did during the implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, to ensure that we have a meaningful exit program in place at our land ports of entry. However, given the challenges DHS has encountered while implementing US-VISIT’s airport exit component, I am not optimistic about our ability to accomplish this goal in the near future.  

I am looking forward to fully reviewing the DHS report on its airport exit pilot programs in the coming weeks. The ongoing terrorist and security threats facing our country make it all the more crucial that we know when foreign visitors are entering and exiting the U.S. I will continue to oversee the development of US-VISIT and other programs to prevent visa overstays and ensure that we make progress toward securing all ports of entry into the United States. 

Sanchez is a member of the House Homeland Security Committee and chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism.