Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has conducted four pilot programs to inform the development and implementation of a biometric exit capability to collect biometric data, such as fingerprints, from individuals exiting the United States. While CBP has made progress in testing biometric exit capabilities, “various longstanding planning, infrastructure and staffing challenges continue to affect CBP’s efforts to develop and implement a biometric exit system,” according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit report.
GAO noted that millions of visitors are lawfully admitted on a temporary basis in to the United States every year, but there are many who overstay and remain in the country beyond their authorized period of admission.
GAO noted that while it’s “previously reported that most overstays are likely motivated by economic opportunities to stay in the United States beyond their authorized periods of admission … overstays could pose significant homeland security risks.”
For example, GAO pointed out, “5 of the 19 September 11, 2001 hijackers were overstays.”
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has the primary responsibility for identifying and addressing overstays. GAO said, “In 2004, DHS was required to develop a plan to accelerate full implementation of an automated biometric entry-exit system. In various reports, GAO identified a range of long-standing challenges DHS has faced in its efforts to develop and deploy this capability and to use entry and exit data to identify overstays. For example, in 2013, GAO recommended that DHS establish timeframes and milestones for a biometric air exit evaluation framework and document the reliability of its overstay data. DHS concurred with the recommendations and addressed them.”
Meanwhile, CBP has set 2018 as the goal for initial implementation of a biometric exit capability in at least one airport, and is working with airlines and airports on strategies for using public/private partnerships to reduce costs and give industry more control over how a biometric exit capability is implemented at airport gates.”
“However,” GAO found, CBP “cannot complete the planning process until these partnership agreements and implementation decisions are finalized.”
GAO previously reported that “infrastructure limitations are a challenge to implementing abiometric air exit capability. For example, CBP noted that US airports generally do not have outbound designated secure areas for exiting travelers where biometric information could be captured by US immigration officers.”
CBP recognizes these challenges and intends to use the information gained from the pilot programs to identify biometric exit technology and staffing processes that are effective in the airport environment, GAO said, noting, however, that, “As CBP is in the process of finalizing its approach, it is too early to assess the agency’s plans for developing and implementing a biometric exit capability and the extent to which those plans will address identified challenges.”
GAO said since its 2013 audit report, “DHS has reported some required information on potential overstays—individuals who are admitted to the country under a specific nonimmigrant category but exceed their lawful admission period—and has not changed its enforcement priorities for potential overstays.”
GAO said DHS generally agreed with its recommendations and implemented actions which addressed them.
In January 2016, DHS issued its first report on estimated overstay rates that covered Fiscal Year 2015, “which included some but not all overstay information required by statute,” GAO said. “The report described expected overstay rates by country for foreign visitors lawfully admitted for business or pleasure through air and sea ports of entry (POE) who were expected to depart the United States in fiscal year 2015.”
“However, because of data reliability concerns, the report did not include all information required by law, including overstay rates for foreign visitors who entered the country through land POEs or under other nonimmigrant categories,” GAO noted, adding, “According to DHS officials, the report for FY 2016 will include reliable overstay rates on foreign students arriving through air and sea POEs.”
DHS’s FY 2015 overstay report provided data on departures and overstays, by country, for foreign visitors who were admitted to the United States though POEs who were expected to depart in FY 2015 (October 1, 2014-September 30, 2015).
The report is limited to foreign nationals who entered the United States as nonimmigrant visitors for business (i.e., B-1 and WB visas) or pleasure (i.e., B-2 and WT visas) through a POE. DHS said it determined there were a total of 44,928,381 nonimmigrant admissions to the United States for business or pleasure through POEs who were expected to depart in FY 2015, “which represents the vast majority of annual nonimmigrant admissions,” thereport stated. “Of this number, DHS calculated a total overstay rate of 1.17 percent, or 527,127 individuals. In other words, 98.83 percent had left the United States on time and abided by the terms of their admission.”
The report further broke down the overstay rates to provide a better picture of those overstays that remain in the United States beyond their period of admission and for whom no evidence of a departure or transition to another immigration status. DHS said, “At the end of FY 2015, there were 482,781 Suspected In-Country Overstays. The overall Suspected In-Country Overstay rate for this scope of travelers is 1.07 percent of the expected departures.”
“Due to continuing departures by individuals in this population, by January 4, 2016, the number of Suspected In-Country Overstays for FY 2015 had dropped to 416,500, rendering the Suspected In-Country Overstay rate as 0.9 percent,” the report stated. “In other words, as of January 4, 2016, DHS has been able to confirm the departures of more than 99 percent of nonimmigrant visitors scheduled to depart in FY 2015 via air and sea POEs, and that number continues to grow."
DHS said it expects to begin reportingoverstay rates for foreign visitors who entered the country through land POEs in its report for FY 2017.
“DHS has improved overstays reporting by, among other things, enhancing the systems it uses to process entry and exit biographic data for potential overstays and is exploring options to collect information from land POEs,” GAO said, adding, “DHS has not changed its enforcement priorities with respect to potential overstays, continuing to focus its enforcement actions on individuals that may pose a national security or public safety risk. Specifically, in fiscal years 2013 through 2015, the agency reviewed approximately 2.7 million overstay leads and sent 26,982 of them (about 1 percent) to field offices for further investigation.”
As a matter of background, in 1996, federal law required development of an automated entry and exit control system to match arrival and departure records for foreign nationals entering and leaving the United States, and to enable identification of overstays. Subsequently, the Immigration and Naturalization Service Data Management Improvement Act of 2000 required implementation of an integrated entry and exit data system for foreign nationals. The system was to provide access to and integrate arrival and departure data that are authorized or required to be created or collected under law and are in an electronic format in certain databases, such as those used at POEs and US consulates abroad, and assist in identifying nonimmigrant visa overstays.
Then, in 2003, DHS initiated the US-VISIT program to develop a comprehensive entry and exit system to collect biometric data from foreign nationals entering or exiting the country through POEs. In 2004, US-VISIT initiated the first step of this program by collecting biometric data on foreign nationals entering the United States at 115 airports and 14 seaports.
The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 further required the DHS Secretary to develop a plan to accelerate full implementation of an automated biometric entry and exit data system that matches available information provided by foreign nationals upon their arrival in and departure from the US. In FY 2016, Congress reiterated its requirement for DHS to submit a plan to implement a biometric entry and exit capability and established a funding mechanism for the DHS Secretary beginning in FY 2017 to develop and implement a biometric entry and exit system. Specifically, 50 percent of amounts collected pursuant to temporary fee increases for L-1 and H-1B visas, which began in FY 2016 and will expire at the end of FY 2025, up to a total of $1 billion, shall be deposited into the 9-11 Response and Biometric Exit Account for DHS to implement the biometric entry and exit data system.
“Since 2009,” GAO explained, “DHS has been exploring various biometric exit capabilities through laboratory and field testing. For instance, in 2009, the legacy US-VISIT program, in partnership with CBP and the Transportation Security Administration, deployed two biometric exit pilot programs in US airports. In 2014, CBP also collaborated with the DHS Science and Technology Directorate to test possible biometric solutions in simulated operational conditions, using the results to inform subsequent CBP biometric efforts. Although this effort informed later biometric exit pilot programs, it did not test potential biometric capabilities in a real-world setting.”