Immigration Reform: Don't Rush to Build Biometric Entry System

Immigration reform legislation -- once it emerges -- is likely to be complex with dozens of hot button issues that will receive most of the attention. Close scrutiny should be addressed, however, to an obscure border security issue -- the biometric exit system -- that will not stir the emotions of many, but could cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

The outline released by a bipartisan group of senators working on immigration reform stated that a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants should not be made available until the government completes an entry-exit system for foreign nationals departing U.S. airports and seaports. Our research shows that a substantial amount of time, money and policy development would be required to meet this congressional mandate. Moreover, there is no evidence that the cost of building this system is worth the security or immigration enforcement benefits it may provide. Legislators should pay careful attention to these findings before conditioning the promise of citizenship on completion of a costly and difficult to implement immigration "exit" system.

The current "entry" system -- called U.S. VISIT-- biometrically verifies the identity of foreign nationals entering U.S. airports and seaports. When these visitors depart, the government collects only biographical information. The current process provides the government some capability to "match" entries and exits and thereby generate a list of individuals who have not left the U.S., even though their visas have expired. These visa over-stayers represent a significant share of the undocumented migrants in the United States.

Congress has mandated, however, that the Department of Homeland Security do more. The law currently requires DHS to collect biometric information from each departing foreign national in order to verify that the person who is boarding the plane is who he says he is, and to compare these biometrics to federal terrorism and criminal databases.

This extra requirement to collect biometric upon departure may seem simple, but, in fact, would be a monumental undertaking. The main reason is that our international airport infrastructure does not provide a single point through which all foreign passengers depart. Consequently, biometrics would have to be collected at the gates of the over 2000 international flights that leave the U.S. each day.

DHS has run two modest demonstration projects to begin testing this process. Both concluded that biometric collection technology is not a problem, but logistics, policy and cost are.

The airlines have refused to participate in these projects. Thus, the task of collecting fingerprints will require deployment of many extra full-time federal employees to the airports. The fingerprint collection system is also likely to increase boarding times and even delay departures.

These rudimentary demonstration projects did not even attempt to compare passenger fingerprints to federal databases. Nor have federal agencies begun to determine how they would use this data. Will visa-overstayers be taken off the plane or allowed to leave? Will they be charged with a crime or levied a fine? Will the plane have to wait until a decision is made?

The issue is further complicated by the fact a terrorist or a visa over-stayer wishing to circumvent the system could just depart from the United States via our land borders and fly out of a Mexican or Canadian airport.

With the limited information available to date, it is impossible to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of this project. Such an analysis would seek to identify the national security and immigration enforcement benefits that a biometric system would provide that our current system does not. It would also estimate the full cost of operating the system, which includes not only the technology and manpower necessary to collect approximately 30 million sets of fingerprints per year, but also the burden on our federal information systems and enforcement personnel. In times of limited budgets, this type of analysis ought to be conducted before a final decision is made to build the system.

If completion of this system is mandated as a precondition for a pathway for citizenship for undocumented migrants, there will be massive political pressure for the system to be put in place as quickly as possible. Under these conditions, it is likely that the system will be poorly planned, haphazardly constructed, and possibly of little value to our national security. Rather than spending billions to rush a biometric system into place, it would be far wiser to de-link this issue from the immigration debate, and carefully study whether this exit system would provide a genuine societal benefit at a reasonable cost.

David Schanzer is an associate professor of public policy at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy. Joe Eyerman is the Director of the Center for Security, Defense, and Public Safety at RTI International. They are co-directors of the Institute of Homeland Security Solutions.