The Bipartisan Policy Center’s 2014 report Entry-Exit System: Progress, Challenges, and Outlook examined the United States’ ability to identify visa overstays, its biographic and biometric capabilities, and the challenges the nation faces in balancing security with ease of trade and tourism. The report drew on, among other sources, the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) reports on entry-exit program capabilities. In February of this year, GAO published an updated report: Border Security: DHS Has Made Progress in Planning for a Biometric Air Exit System and Reporting Overstays but Challenges Remain.
A timeline included in the new GAO report highlights two significant developments since BPC’s analysis: first, a congressionally authorized fee increase on L-1 and H-1B visas to provide up to $1 billion in funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop and implement a biometric exit system beginning in FY2017. Second, Customs and Border Protection conducted four pilot programs to test biometric capabilities at air and land ports of entry between 2015 and 2016. This blog will examine the implications of both developments.
Developing and Financing a Biometric Exit System
Biometric entry has been largely implemented within the United States. All international travelers to the United States are screened, and most are screened with fingerprints and other biometrics. Biometric exit has been more complicated to implement; the challenges range from finding the most operationally effective technologies, to negotiating cooperation with Canada and Mexico at land borders, to appropriating staffing and funds, to a simple lack of foresight when the existing infrastructure was built.
In 2016, Congress reaffirmed its 2004 promise in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act to accelerate the implementation of a biometric exit system. Specifically, Congress authorized DHS to collect up to $1 billion in fee increases on L-1 and H-1B visas between 2016 and 2025, to be deposited into the 9-11 Response and Biometric Exit Account. This is a significant step since the publication of BPC’s 2014 report, as costs and funding are potentially the largest challenge facing an encompassing national rollout of a biometric exit system.
At the nation’s land and sea ports of entry (POEs), as well as airports, the issues of personnel and infrastructure are particular sticking points where funding is concerned. Infrastructure built in the 1960s was not originally designed for departure inspections, and traffic crossing at the border and at other ports was significantly lower when POEs were constructed. As described in our 2014 report, CBP had identified a need for 3,811 supplementary officers at existing POEs, not accounting the additional staff required for additional infrastructure capable of tracking an outgoing flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic with biometric systems in place. Add to those challenges the cost of land acquisition on which to build the infrastructure and environmental assessments, and it’s no wonder Congress’ plans for biometric exit systems has stalled in recent years. A $1 billion fund specifically designated for a biometric exit system is an acknowledgement of existing challenges, but it’s hard to see this as more than a first step toward overcoming the many logistical challenges of implementing such an exit system.
Pilot Programs and Progress
BPC’s 2014 report thoroughly explored the previous pilot programs DHS conducted at both air and land POEs. In 2009, DHS implemented a series of pilot programs at the nation’s airports, which included both TSA checkpoint and CBP at-gate options for biometric exit collection. Both came with benefits and setbacks. The 2009 exit pilots took a minimum of 30 seconds per passenger, which would be a significant source of delay if rolled out comprehensively (see our report’s chart for more details). At the time, DHS had stated their aim to create biometric exit solutions at airports that are “non-intrusive, transparent, and collect the needed data within one to three seconds.”
Further, the 2009 pilots did not live up to biometric technology’s potential for highly accurate matches for either facial recognition or fingerprinting. BPC’s 2014 report recommended that a successful deployment strategy would likely need to proceed in stages: technological assessments (which were underway at the time of the report’s publication), extensive piloting (conducted in 2015 and 2016), and a gradual rollout wherein early experiences inform national deployment.”
In its recently released report, GAO highlighted four brand new pilot programs on its timeline, three of which were specific to airports: Biometric Exit (BE) Mobile, 1 to 1 Facial Comparison, and Departure Information System Test.
- BE Mobile: BE Mobile is a fingerprint reader deployed in the ten U.S. airports with the highest volume of international passengers. CBP noted and GAO agreed that this method of collecting fingerprints at departure time was an effective collection method but required too much time and workforce for all departing flights: the program’s implementation on one U.S. flight departing for Mexico required six officers and took 45 minutes. The program will stay in place at the ten original airports in which it was deployed, and CBP noted it may be a viable solution for smaller airports. GAO officers witnessed at least one student visa overstay apprehended through the use of this program.
- 1 to 1 Facial Comparison: This pilot program compares a photograph taken by CBP officials at the airport to the photo on the traveler’s passport chip. The pilot system was originally tested only at Dulles International Airport; after its success there, it was incorporated at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The technology took 20 to 30 seconds per passenger, but CBP officials stated that the system was “not fully integrated with CBP systems,” and would take less time once integration was complete.
- Departure Information Systems Test: Deployed at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, this pilot compares biometric facial recognition data to a gallery of photos. According to GAO’s report, CBP officials said that “the capability to match one photograph to a gallery of photographs will be critical in developing a biometric exit solution for deployment on a nationwide scale because the agency already has access to one or more photographs on record of each person exiting the country, if they entered legally.” As of November 2016, formal evaluation of the test was not yet complete.
As previously discussed, various complicated challenges stand in the way of successful implementation of a fully operation biometric exit system at our land ports, especially on the U.S.-Mexico Border. Environmental factors—specifically, the harsh climate of the Mexican border—were responsible for the cancellation of an unmanned kiosk pilot in September 2011, which DHS pledged to adapt to the harsh conditions at a later date. A cross-border kiosk pilot in 2005 also failed due to the “larger compliance challenges for a system that required travelers to stop long after departing the country.” Each option presented obstacles that prevented DHS from implementing biographic exit capability at the southern land border. BPC noted that these challenges and failures raised important questions of planning, acquiring land, conducting environmental assessments, ensuring traveler compliance and the authenticity of exit records, and recommended that extensive piloting would be needed to determine what options were viable.
DHS’s priorities for tracking overstays has remained the same since 2013.
In February 2016, CBP initiated the Southwest Border Pedestrian Exit Field Test, a facial and iris scanning of pedestrian traffic at the Otay Mesa POE in San Diego, California. CBP invited Theresa Brown, BPC’s director of immigration policy, to visit the site in May, the final month of the pilot. Her write-up details the successes and failures of the pilot, and agreed with CBP’s position that even the things that went wrong or were not accounted for— delays, excess baggage carried by pedestrians, the position of the sun on the equipment—were useful insights for developing a viable solution in the long-term.
Moving forward, CBP plans to implement biometric exit capability in at least one major airport by 2018, and is working on public/private partnership strategies to do so. Regarding the challenges at the southern border, CBP said they intended to use the data collected at Otay Mesa to inform any future solution, and were exploring options to collect biometric data from exiting vehicle passengers.
Addressing the Overstay Population
The second half of the GAO report addressed the problem of “visa overstays”—unauthorized persons who arrived in the country legally, but stayed past the duration of their legal visa. According to the report, while DHS has been reporting partial overstay rates thus far, the agency intends to start reporting overstay rates for foreign visitors who enter through land POEs beginning in FY2017, and is “enhancing” biographic and biometric data collection systems to assist in that process. This is of particular importance in light of a recent Center for Migration Studies report that found that a “large majority of persons” who are unauthorized to be in the United States—two-thirds, according to the study—did not illegally cross the border, but are in fact visa overstays. Comprehensive exit data is crucial to accurately tracking this population, as they only become known as overstays if DHS can confidently say they have not left the United States. Per GAO’s report, DHS’s priorities for tracking overstays has remained the same since 2013: finding and deporting overstays who pose a national security risk.
Significant developments have occurred since BPC’s 2014 report, which indicates a commitment on the part of DHS to continue to develop solutions, not only to the border issues that have plagued enforcement for decades, but to emergent threats and challenges that occur in the present moment. GAO’s report, DHS’s plan to roll out further testing of biometric exit data, and the department’s commitment to better and more comprehensive tracking of overstays are vital steps toward the sort of long-term results desperately needed at our ports of entry.