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Biometric Exit System Unnecessary and Unviable

Let me say at the outset that I think Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton have been two of the nation’s most outstanding public servants, and the report of the 9/11 Commission was an extraordinary document both in the breadth of its analysis and the cogency of its recommendations. The two chairmen should further be commended for their steady efforts to press for fuller implementation of those recommendations, including the release yesterday of a 10th Anniversary Report Card under the auspices of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Preparedness Group.

But among the group’s list of nine major unfinished recommendations, there is one that deserves to remain unfinished – the construction of a biometric exit system to match the biometric entry system of US VISIT. Congress first mandated the creation of an exit system in 1996, and the requirement for biometric exit was added in 2002. It remains undone, however, for good and sensible reasons.

First, as has been demonstrated through several pilot tests, there is simply no easy way to gather fingerprints from departing air passengers without completely reconfiguring the nation’s airports or enlisting the airlines in the business of fingerprinting passengers. Neither is viable.

Second, the problem is even larger at the land borders. Requiring fingerprints from outgoing travelers would create exit backups at the border that would dwarf the usually long lines to get in. The economic damage would be enormous.

Biometric exit is an expensive, awkward solution to a problem that can be addressed in far simpler ways. The goal of biometric exit is to discourage visa overstays. The first step to achieving that end is for the administration to make the fullest use possible of the biographic information that is already gathered on departing air passengers. These records should be matched up in prompt fashion with visa entry data, and Congress should demand regular, public reporting on the percentage of visa travelers who are known to have departed on time by air.

The second step is to begin sharing entry data with Canada and Mexico, which would allow for identification of visa travelers who enter by air and depart by land. Since every entry into Canada or Mexico is also a departure from the United States, sharing that information is a far less expensive, less disruptive means of gathering the same data. Canada and the United States are currently discussing such an arrangement as part of the Obama-Harper border initiative.

Finally, the State Department and DHS should take the simple, inexpensive step of requiring a working e-mail address from all visa travelers. The government could then alert those travelers several weeks in advance that their visa is set to expire and remind them of the consequences of overstaying. While such a measure would obviously not dissuade someone determined to violate their visa status, it would notify all visa travelers that the United States is serious about enforcing its visa rules. The vast majority would comply, and selective enforcement to track down and deport overstayers would help drive home the message that compliance is not optional.

Would any of these measures provide the certainty of biometric exit system? No, but that level of perfection is not needed. Exit systems are largely aimed at discouraging illegal immigration. Entry systems are far more important in preventing terrorist attacks because they help to identify and keep out those suspected of ties to terrorist activity. If such individuals succeed in entering the United States regardless, they are unlikely to leave, and a costly exit system would buy little or nothing in the way of additional security.

With apologies to Messrs Kean and Hamilton, it is time for Congress and the administration to stop chasing the Holy Grail of biometric exit and move forward with sensible, effective measures to tackle the visa overstay problem.

Edward Alden blogs on border security, visa policy and immigration issues. Read More
  • Janice Kephart

    Ed, As we have testified together, with all due respect, I take big issue with you on this particular topic.  I chastise myself for not knowing of your interest last year, when I held a day long, closed door, discussion seminar on this topic with the leading decision-makers in the field, as I certainly would have invited you!
    I’m writing a big paper right now, and Exit is a significant piece of it.  I’ll reserve my comments for that, but I just had to put my marker down!

    :)

    Janice Kephart, contributor to this blog and former border counsel to the 9/11 Commission