Why is the biometric exit tracking system still not in place?

Passports, Visa, foreign workers
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The U.S. government prints departure dates on the tens of millions of visitor visas it issues to foreign citizens each year. But in a time when internet companies are able to track nearly every whim of individuals, our government still has little idea whether visitors obey the exit dates – or ever leave at all.

The implementation of a biometric entry-exit screening system was one of the recommendations made in 2004 by the independent, bi-partisan 9/11 Commission. This idea was not original to the commission. In fact, it was already the law, albeit one never obeyed by the executive branch to this day.

{mosads}An automated entry-and-exit screening system for foreign nationals entering and departing from the United States was first required by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. It is not an exaggeration to say that had such a system been in place, the 9/11 attacks may have been prevented. The Government Accountability Office, the Office of Inspector General, and the Department of Homeland Security have all recognized the imperative of having biometric exit screening in place.

And yet, three successive administrations have failed to comply with the law, particularly the exit-tracking part of it. 

Since 1996, an exasperated Congress has passed seven separate laws requiring biometric entry-exit screening. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all failed in their constitutional duty to faithfully execute those laws. And for 20 years,  Congress  has failed to ensure its laws are  taken as more than mere  suggestions by  the president.

Flouting the law and refusing to implement a system designed specifically to protect Americans from terrorism and job theft is a perfect example of why the American people don’t trust their government to fix the “broken immigration system.”

The “entry” part of the system is in fairly good shape. Most non-U.S. citizens who apply for a visa to enter the United States or enter under the Visa Waiver Program have to submit biometric information (fingerprints and a digital photograph) to U.S. consular or border officials. But upon leaving, foreigners face no biometric exit screening, outside of a few temporary pilot programs. Those who depart by air or sea are supposed to turn in a paper form (the I-94) that can be matched to a form submitted upon entry.  In most cases, our federal government simply depends on good faith compliance by nonimmigrants (usually tourists, business travelers, and guest workers) to ensure that individuals honor the terms of their admission and turn in their departure form. 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.

The cost of implementing a biometric exit system has been cited as the main reason why it is not feasible, but reliable estimates demonstrate that cost is not an impediment. The Center for Immigration Studies estimated in 2013 that the cost of implementing biometric exit screening at all air and sea ports of entry would cost between $400 and $600 million, which is in-line with a 2012 DHS estimate. Entry-exit screening at all land ports would add to the costs, but the price of digital fingerprint scanners has come down in recent years as their use has become more commonplace. Balking at costs is really a red herring anyway, since the price for setting up and maintaining the screening system could be covered by nominal fees added to visa applications.

A biometric exit system is essential to deterring  visa overstays effectively. It will help to eliminate errors that regularly occur when collecting and accessing biographic data, and will make identity fraud more difficult. It is easy to steal someone else’s identity papers but not so their fingerprints. A biometric screening system will enhance and facilitate data-sharing, which will lead to better national security, while also helping to combat international terrorism.  Just last month, State Department officials testified to Congress that they have revoked the visas of 9,500 foreign nationals since 2001 because they found evidence those individuals were connected to terrorism after they had been admitted into the United States.  Because of the lack of a biometric exit system, the officials had to admit that they have no idea whether those 9,500 individuals are still in the United States or not.

By identifying past visa overstayers so they can be denied future entry, a biometric exit system would serve as an effective deterrent to visa violation.   If they knew they were going to be identified when they failed to undergo exit screening upon their timely departure from the United States, many of them would decide to leave when their visas expired.  Deterring visa overstays protects the interest of American taxpayers and especially the American workers who must compete for jobs and wages with the millions of visa overstayers who illegally take U.S. jobs.

Beck is president of NumbersUSA.

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