Congress Says Homeland Security Has Insufficient 'Exit' Plan

The Government Accountability Office says it could take up to a decade to find a practical way to implement biometric exit capabilities at land ports of exit.
Since 9/11, the U.S. government has poured a lot of resources into technologies and processes designed to protect the country's ports of entry from being infiltrated by criminals, illegal immigrants, and terrorists. Considerably less attention has been focused on screening those leaving the country, a problem that Congress has taken up with the Homeland Security Department.

Homeland Security plans to by the end of 2008 fully implement a biometric exit program to track foreign nationals entering and leaving the country. The agency says it will release final specifications for the biometric program next June, but the House Homeland Security Committee is skeptical this deadline can be met.

Homeland Security uses biometric technology at 116 airports, 15 seaports, and 154 land ports. In the government's fiscal 2006, 30.7 million travelers went through the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, or US-VISIT, biometric entry process.

"Biometric exit, on the other hand, was only tested through pilot projects at 12 airports and two seaports," Congressman Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., wrote in a report issued Thursday and entitled, "America's Unfinished Welcome Mat: US-VISIT a Decade Later." Thompson chairs the House's Homeland Security Committee.

The department is planning to deploy biometric exit technology at airports this year, but the Government Accountability Office says it could take up to a decade to find a practical way to implement biometric exit capabilities at land ports of exit. Homeland Security has tested passive, automated, radio-frequency identification as an alternative means of recording a visitor's exit from land ports. But the Government Accountability Office in February found that the RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) pilot programs didn't solve the problem of tracking exits and would be expensive to implement. One thought was to use RFID tags embedded in I-94 forms, issued to foreign nationals who are covered by US-VISIT, but GAO pointed out that while the tags could be used to track the I-94 forms, there was no guarantee that the visitors entering the country were the same ones leaving. The tag in the I-94 couldn't necessarily be physically tied to any individual.

Biometrics continues to be a work in progress at the borders, despite repeated calls to implement the technology. The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, also known as the Patriot Act, mandated that the entry-exit system use biometrics along with tamper-resistant, machine readable documents, and that the system be able to interface with other law enforcement databases. The Border Security Act strengthened the Patriot Act's biometrics provisions by requiring standards for biometrics for visas and other travel documents, the installation of equipment at all points of entry to enable collection, comparison, and authentication of biometric data, and the development of a database for arrival and departure data from machine-readable travel documents. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 also called for the government put the pedal down on implementing the biometric entry-exit system, but to no avail.

Immigration legislation working its way through Congress includes $4.4 billion in immediate additional funding for border security and other enforcement efforts. In his June 23 radio address, President George Bush noted that the Senate is discussing a revised immigration bill that would increase the number of U.S. border patrol agents, as well as add more fencing, infrared cameras, and other technologies at the border. "It also requires an employee-verification system based on government-issued, tamper-proof identification cards that will help employers ensure that the workers they hire are legal," he said.

This legislation would require the Social Security Administration to issue fraud-resistant Social Security cards within two years after enactment. The bill also requires Social Security to consider adding biometric information to its cards, effectively making Social Security cards a national ID card.

So the government's quest to use biometric technology as part of its homeland security and immigration efforts continues, despite vague notions of what the technology will look like and how it will actually work.