The House of Representatives has voted to cut funding for the exit program of the US VISIT, the nation’s first biometric-based system designed to maintain a record of foreign travelers who enter our country, and whether or not they leave when they are supposed to. Congress is short-sighted in not funding this critical homeland security program appropriately.
When we stood up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of 9/11, everybody – including Congress – understood that we had no way of knowing who was in the country legally, who was in the country illegally, and whether or not they were still here. We also had no effective way of knowing who was crossing our borders, whether they were simply visitors, as most were, or illegal immigrants, criminals or even terrorists. US VISIT was designed to change that. And it did.
US VISIT is, on the surface, a simple program: Whenever a foreign visitor applies for a visa to travel to the United States, he or she has a photograph taken and digital fingerprints recorded. Upon arrival at a U.S. port, a customs inspector insures that the person is the same person holding the visa by checking the photograph and running the fingerprints. Not only does this verify the identity of the traveler, but it also cross checks criminal and terrorist watch lists. This process takes a few seconds and has proven enormously successful in indentifying criminals and illegal immigrants attempting to return to the United States. It is more difficult to provide accurate statistics about the potential numbers of terrorists turned away because such individuals would not have yet committed the act of terror for which they are attempting to enter the country and are therefore on no lists. If, however, they are on a watch list and are using a fraudulent visa, in an effort to avoid be caught on terror watch lists, then they will be turned away.
The 9/11 Commission singled out US VISIT as one of the most successful programs of the Department of Homeland Security. Now is no time to be cutting funding for a program that is so critical to management and security of our borders. To be truly effective, we need to not only know who is entering our borders but whether or not they are exiting when they are supposed to. There may be legitimate differences of opinion on how to implement the exit portion of the program, but the answer is not to cut funding. It’s to roll up our sleeves and find a solution we can all embrace.
For those in Congress who say that they want enforce our immigration laws, they should be reminded that about 40 percent of illegal immigrants in the United States initially crossed our borders with perfectly legal visas. The problem was that, once in, they never left. Their legal visas expired and they disappeared into the countryside. If we do not implement a system for alerting the government to such violations, we will never get our borders under control.