Some fifteen years after Congress first mandated the creation of an “entry-exit” system for foreign visitors, the government has finally come up with an effective solution. The issue now is whether Congress will embrace a sensible approach or continue to insist on the utopian solution of a perfect biometric system.
John Cohen, the principal deputy coordinator for counterterrorism at DHS, yesterday told the House Homeland Security subcommittee on border and maritime security that the administration had developed an “enhanced biographic” system that will go a long way to tackling the problem of visitors who overstay visas. The issue has been a terrorism concern since 9/11, because several of the hijackers had overstayed visas. It has also been a big hole in U.S. efforts to deter illegal immigration.
Congress, and the 9/11 Commission, have insisted on a biometric exit system that would be the counterpart to the US-VISIT entry scheme. The problem has been that, even in the relatively controlled airport environment, there is no easy and efficient way to collect fingerprints from departing travelers. The land border environment is even harder.
Over the past several years, however, DHS has been steadily improving its ability to track overstays, primarily by using the passenger departure records provided by all airlines. Under the direction of Secretary Napolitano, DHS in May began using those records and others, including the US-VISIT entry records and various intelligence databases, to vet the roughly 1.7 million individuals who were thought to have overstayed their visas since the launch of US-VISIT in 2004. The results were striking. The review determined that 843,000 of the potential overstayers had already left the country or changed their status and were living in the United States legally. Of the remaining 839,000, just 2,100 were determined to warrant greater scrutiny on security or public safety grounds. ICE narrowed that list further to several hundred names, and determined that many of those were already in U.S. jails, had died, or in some case left the country as well. In the end, Cohen said, some “dozens” of new investigations were opened by ICE to track down the remaining individuals.
The new vetting, which DHS now plans to use on an ongoing basis, will allow for far more effective action on overstays than has ever been possible before. First, as Cohen said, it will enable DHS to quickly identify the small number of potential security threats in the overstay population and deploy ICE investigators to track them down. Secondly, for non-security threats, DHS will nonetheless inform the State Department of individual overstayers, who will have their visas cancelled and would face serious hurdles on any future efforts to travel to the United States. For travelers from Visa Waiver countries, their travel approvals under the Electronic System of Travel Authorization (ESTA) will be cancelled, and they will require visas for any future travel. Finally, DHS will soon be able to provide Congress with country-by-country data on the percentage of nationals who overstay visas. The new system will send a clear message, for the first time in U.S. history, that travelers will face serious consequences if they violate their terms of entry to the United States.
The solution does not take biometrics off the table, though it will not be an immediate priority. Cohen said that biometrics will continue to be incorporated where appropriate and could be expanded as technology improves. The U.S, government is also currently in negotiations with Canada, which is setting up its own version of US-VISIT, to share data on land border entries from the United States (which are also “exits” from the U.S.). But instead of waiting and hoping for the perfect biometric solution, the new approach offers real improvements that can be implemented immediately.
What is needed now is for DHS to defend boldly the enhanced biographic solution it has devised. The warm reception from many on the subcommittee yesterday was encouraging. In particular, Secretary Napolitano must insist that Congress stop blocking new countries from entering the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). As my Security Debrief colleague Stephen Heifetz has argued, the VWP is not just more efficient for travelers, it includes many security enhancements beyond the visa system. It has been held up because Congress has linked it to the development of a biometric exit system that would permit reporting on national overstay rates. Napolitano should argue forcefully that this standard has now effectively been met (by a better, cost-efficient, sensible biographic approach), and Congress should lift the hurdles to new VWP entrants. It would be a victory for both security and travel.