Foreign visitors already ID'd on entry but exit requirement has been unmet for decades
On January 27, 2017 President Trump signed an executive order titled, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” It has received global media attention for the temporary ban it places on immigration from seven named countries, but it has implications for the identity and security industries for two of its other requirements.
First it calls for the Secretary of Homeland Security to “expedite” the long planned, but not-yet-implemented biometric exit system for travelers to the US. It also calls for the creation of a database of documents proffered by travelers to be used for ongoing checks to guard against passport usage by multiple individuals.
In terms of biometric exit, the order lays out a timeline for reports, though no timeline for actual implementation of the system. This is likely the case because it has proven so difficult to accomplish.
This is largely because our nation’s airports are not set up to collect data from foreign travelers leaving the country. Upon entry, customs officers have long interviewed and checked documents of incoming foreign visitors. Adding biometric collection to this existing process was straightforward. It was completed nationwide more than a decade ago, just a few years after US-VISIT — now the Office of Biometrics and Identity Management — was mandated to do so.
Still the collection of biometric upon exit, to track back and ensure that the entering visitor actually departed as required, has not occurred.
The first law requiring an automated entry and exit solution for tracking international visitors was part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, way back during the Clinton administration. The Border Security Act of 2002 reiterated the requirement and stressed biometric collection. Since then other laws have been passed in an effort to make good on the exit requirements. But still, 20 years later there is no biometric exit system in place and only a handful of temporary pilot projects have been trialed over the years.
Key stats from biometric exit debate
There are several frequently cited statistics around this topic of exit. They have become so common that they have in essence become “true” by default. It is impossible to fully know the accuracy today, but they are important to understanding the arguments around exit.
‘Exit will cost $600 million’
In 2013, the Center for Immigration Studies estimated that a nationwide biometric air and sea exit program would cost $400-$600 million for first year implementation costs.
‘40% of illegal aliens came legally but never left’
In 1996, the INS reported that, “about 2.1 million, or 41 percent, of the total undocumented population in 1996 are nonimmigrant overstays. That is, they entered legally on a temporary basis and failed to depart.”
In various forms, this 20-year-old statistic forms a cornerstone of the pro-exit argument. A large number of illegal immigrants visit legally but never depart. Obviously, this could also hold true for potential terrorists so the homeland security angle also cites this 40% figure as well.
‘Half a million visitors come each year and never leave’
A DHS report, “Entry/Exit Overstay Report: Fiscal Year 2015,” provided a more recent picture of how many people this involves on an annual basis. It reports that of the 45-million nonimmigrant visitors to the US in 2015, about 1% or 416,500 were considered “Overstays” as of Jan. 4, 2016.
Today the unauthorized immigrant population exceeds 11 million.
Challenges with biometric exit
Beyond the infrastructure challenges presented by the layout of existing airports, there are technical, operational and financial hurdles that, up to now, have proven insurmountable. Technology however has changed rapidly during the time the US has been considering exit requirements. New biometric modalities are feasible and automated, mobile biometric and demographic data collection devices are prevalent.
If the $400-$600 million dollar figure is accurate, or even close to accurate, it can certainly be funded if it is a priority of the new administration. The two presidential campaigns spent a combined $700 million dollars and it would only require foregoing a few of the much-maligned F-35 military jets to fund the project.
It seems that in 2017, the biometric technology is ready for the challenge and the political will may be in line to find the funds to get it done. Still the current plan is unknown, offering little more than a one-sentence directive at this point. The new executive order lacks specificity, simply stating:
Sec. 7. Expedited Completion of the Biometric Entry-Exit Tracking System.
(a) The Secretary of Homeland Security shall expedite the completion and implementation of a biometric entry-exit tracking system for all travelers to the United States, as recommended by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.
(b) The Secretary of Homeland Security shall submit to the President periodic reports on the progress of the directive contained in subsection (a) of this section. The initial report shall be submitted within 100 days of the date of this order, a second report shall be submitted within 200 days of the date of this order, and a third report shall be submitted within 365 days of the date of this order. Further, the Secretary shall submit a report every 180 days thereafter until the system is fully deployed and operational.
A separate requirement from the executive order also has identity implications. It calls for creation of a database of documents presented by visitors. This would be used as a check to ensure that duplicate documents are not used by multiple individuals.
Sec. 4. Implementing Uniform Screening Standards for All Immigration Programs.
(a) The Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation shall implement a program, as part of the adjudication process for immigration benefits, to identify individuals seeking to enter the United States on a fraudulent basis with the intent to cause harm, or who are at risk of causing harm subsequent to their admission. This program will include the development of a uniform screening standard and procedure, such as in-person interviews; a database of identity documents proffered by applicants to ensure that duplicate documents are not used by multiple applicants; amended application forms that include questions aimed at identifying fraudulent answers and malicious intent; a mechanism to ensure that the applicant is who the applicant claims to be; a process to evaluate the applicant’s likelihood of becoming a positively contributing member of society and the applicant’s ability to make contributions to the national interest; and a mechanism to assess whether or not the applicant has the intent to commit criminal or terrorist acts after entering the United States.