Just fourteen years ago, nineteen men committed an act of terror that fundamentally changed how the nation operates. The tragic events of September 11, 2001 prompted the rethinking of our nation’s entire system of homeland security with the restructuring of operations in both public and private sectors.
One implementation in particular changed how the federal government collects data on foreign nationals entering the country: the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) biometric entry system, which has been fully operational at all land, air, and sea ports of entry since 2006.
However, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit report, DHS has faced numerous longstanding challenges in attempting to fully deploy a biometric exit capability to track foreign nationals. A biometric exit system would be able to track foreign nationals exiting the country through biometric data, fingerprints, and allow for the most accurate foreign national overstay numbers.
Having a biometric system entry/exit system is essential to accurately identifying overstays—individuals who were admitted legally on a temporary basis but then overstayed their authorized periods of admission. Although many overstays are motivated by economic opportunities, GAO noted that five of the nineteen men who orchestrated the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 were overstays.
Currently, no biometric exit system exists. If a fully implemented biometric exit system were to be instated, then departure data for foreign nationals could be acquired more easily, creating a more secure state where the DHS has a reliable system of identifying overstays. Neither DHS, nor its predecessor, have consistently relayed an annual overstay rate to Congress since 1994.
GAO has continually reported on DHS’s lack of confidence in its own overstay data. In April 2011, the auditors found that DHS’s efforts to identify and report on overstays were hindered by unreliable data. Almost two years later, in February 2013, not much had changed. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano stated overstay estimates would be reported by December 2013; however, until January 2016, DHS had yet to report any overstay estimates.
Earlier this month, DHS published Entry/Exit Overstay Report: Fiscal Year 2015, which provided data ondepartures and overstays, by country, for foreign visitors to the US. Homeland Security Today recounted the details of the DHS report, which stated 527,127 individuals overstayed their admission between October 2014 and September 2015.
The long-awaited DHS report surfaced quickly after the passing of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, requiring a report on nonimmigrant overstay and a comprehensive plan for implementation of a biometric entry and exit data system and withheld $13 million from the Office of the Secretary and Executive Management until such steps had been fulfilled by the DHS.
However, House Committee on the Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) argued that DHS’s report is incomprehensive because it uses biographic data rather than biometric data to determine overstay rates.
Goodlatte said, “There is no way to truly determine how many people overstayed their visas without a biometric exit system. That said, many of the report’s findings are alarming: more than half a million visitors overstayed their visas, over 150,000 Visa Waiver Program visitors overstayed their allotted time here, and thousands of overstayers came from countries associated with terrorism, such as Iran, Sudan and Yemen.”
GAO’s recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest, chronicles DHS advancements in developing a biometric exit system and reporting overstay estimates over the last twelve years. GAO was asked to discuss the extent to which DHS has made progress in developing a biometric exit system and reporting overstay estimates.
According to GAO, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) of 2004 necessitated the Secretary of DHS develop a plan to fast-track implementation of a biometric entry and exit data system that would match foreign national arrival and departure information; DHS began tracking foreign nationals’ entries into the United States the same year. The biometric entry system was in place by 2006; ten years later, a biometric exit system has yet to be implemented.
GAO has reported on the various hindrances to the implementation of a biometric exit system since the passing of IRTPA. GAO reported the following:
- December 2006: DHS officials stated a biometric exit capability on land ports could not be implemented without suffering a major impact on land ports of exit because travelers would have to stop their vehicles to be processed.
- February and August 2007: DHS had not adequately outlined and justified planned expenditures for exit system pilot programs and demonstration projects. Moreover, a complete schedule for biometric air exit implementation had also not been developed.
- September 2008: DHS was unlikely to meet its goal of implementing an air exit system with biometric indicators by July 1, 2009, due to unresolved issues, such as opposition to the department’s plan by the airline industry.
- 2009: DHS conducted pilot programs for biometric air exit capabilities in airport scenarios.
- August 2010: 30 percent of the air exit requirements identified in the evaluation plan were not operationally tested during pilot programs, hindering DHS’s ability to inform decision makers about long-term air exit solution progress.
- October 2010: DHS issued a memo stating the department is unable to determine how and when to implement a biometric exit capability at airports due to a certain impact on the flow of travel, poor airport and air carrier cooperation, and failure to determine what airport personnel would capture biometric information. DHS has acknowledged these challenges continue to affect the implementation of a biometric air exit system today, in 2016.
- 2011: DHS directed its Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) to analyze the previous air exit pilot programs. S&T determined that the tools to develop a biometric air exit system existed and suggested existing technology, like online check-in, self-service, and paperless technology be leveraged. DHS officials expressed fears that a significant amount of airports and airlines had yet to incorporate these new technologies.
- May 2012: DHS published an internal report stating they had significant questions regarding the value of collecting biometric data in addition to biographic data, like name and date of birth, and that they would determine whether a biometric air exit is economically justified; ignoring the IRTPA statutory requirement. Additionally, this report contained nine recommendations to better inform the DHS’s planning for a biometric air exit; the department planned to take steps to address these recommendations by May 2014.
As of January 2016, DHS has not yet fully addressed the recommendations of GAO’s May 2012 report, further lengthening the process. Fears expressed in a July 2013 GAO report were realized as DHS failed to develop information about options and associated costs and benefits for a biometric air exit system and report to Congress by fiscal year 2016 budget cycle.
Currently, GAO recommends that the Secretary of DHS establish time frames and milestones for developing and implementing an evaluation framework to be used in conducting the department’s assessment of biometric exit options.