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Entry-Exit System: Progress, Challenges, and Outlook

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The state of America’s entry-exit capability is a core issue in the ongoing immigration debate. This analysis shows that exit records, and particularly biometric exit records, offer mixed value for enforcement objectives.

Discussions about preventing unauthorized immigration often focus on the U.S. border with Mexico—and more specifically, securing the areas between legal ports of entry (POE). Equally relevant to border security are the POEs themselves, where legal entry of people and goods occurs under the direction of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—the agency charged with securing America’s borders. Between the POEs, CBP’s Border Patrol officers mostly focus on preventing illegal entries and illicit trade. At the ports themselves, however, CBP must balance its prevention and security efforts with another imperative: to facilitate the efficient flow of commerce and travel.

About 40 percent of the unauthorized immigrant population originally entered the country legally through a land, air, or sea port. Subsequently, these individuals overstayed their authorized period of admission, falling out of legal status. Overstays are often referred to as “visa overstays” or “visa overstayers.” Including the term “visa” is technically incorrect because (1) many visitors are admitted without visas and (2) DHS inspectors, not visas, ultimately determine an individual’s authorized period of admission.

Automated entry-exit tracking was originally conceived as a tool for immigration control and enforcement. In 1981, the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy recommended “a fully automated system of nonimmigrant document control … to allow prompt tracking of aliens and to verify their departure.” The first legal requirement for an entry-exit system was enacted in 1996. After the events of September 11, 2001, entry-exit tracking also became viewed as a national security asset. The 9/11 Commission recommended that DHS, “properly supported by Congress, should complete, as quickly as possible, a biometric entry-exit screening system, including a single system for speeding qualified travelers.” Soon thereafter, biometric identifiers (such as fingerprints, photographs, or iris scans) became part of the entry-exit mandate. Previously, only biographic data (text data including names and birthdates) were required.

An entry-exit system’s essential function is to match foreign visitors’ arrival records to subsequent departure records. If the system included all arrivals and all departures, DHS could determine whether and when individuals depart the country and identify those who overstay their period of admission.

In order to establish a high level of confidence in the entry-exit data, the system would have to cover all land, air, and sea POEs. The more POEs or travelers are omitted from entry or exit tracking, the less confident DHS can be that an individual actually overstayed. Today, biometric entry capability is fully deployed, and biographic exit capability is deployed everywhere but the land border with Mexico, where vehicle travelers depart the country at speed and no systematic or mandatory collection occurs. This is a large gap, since about 45 percent of all entry inspections—land, air, or sea—occur at the southwest land border.

The southwest land border presents the greatest challenge to completing the entry-exit system. Land POEs have about five entry lanes for each exit lane, and a variety of challenges, most notably insufficient space and economic impacts, prevent the construction of an exit infrastructure that “mirrors” the entry system. Other potential southern border solutions may be years away.

At airports and seaports, a biometric solution appears technologically feasible. A large gap exists, however, between technological feasibility and real-world implementation. In the air and sea environments, DHS is still working to develop and test a concept of operations that fulfills biometric identifiers’ considerable potential to produce accurate matches, while minimizing impacts to the already crowded travel environment. Implementing a system that is likely to work as intended will require further research and development, followed by an iterative rollout that enables DHS to apply early lessons to later adopters.

This report describes the progress, challenges, and potential approaches for implementing biometric and biographic entry-exit capabilities at America’s POEs. It observes that although a biometric exit capability has considerable potential that fully justifies its pursuit, the enforcement benefits may be less significant than commonly believed, especially for immigration purposes.


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