- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Federal law has long called for all visitors to the U.S. to submit to biometric identification both coming and going, but the government has never lived up to that promise — and senators in their immigration bill this year even announced a retreat, weakening the law, saying the requirement is too expensive.

But a report released Tuesday by the Center for Immigration Studies says biometric identification can be implemented easily and at a fraction of the cost estimated by government officials.

Janice Kephart, the report’s author and a national security fellow at the center, said she was surprised to find out how little good information was available to senators as they were debating their bill early this year. She said they were using a 5-year-old cost estimate of $3.5 billion, when technology and a better understanding of traffic shows it could be accomplished for much less, and with little hassle.

“Fourteen other nations have already done this extremely well. New Zealand is on its second generation of technology,” said Ms. Kephart. “We’ve got all these countries that are ahead of us; we’re even helping other countries implement biometric entry-exit. And we’re refusing to do it ourselves.”

She said relying on kiosks, which other countries do, could reduce the amount of manpower needed and the time it takes to clear the exit checks — which she said could end up taking as little as 20 seconds in many cases.

She also proposes cutting airlines out of the system and using Homeland Security employees to collect the data, which she said would reduce hidden costs.

Her calculations put the first-year cost of deploying technology and training personnel at $400 million to $600 million, depending on which technology is chosen. She said the costs could be covered by visa fees.

Ms. Kephart’s findings could help bolster efforts by some Republicans to insist that any final immigration deal that emerges from Congress make good on the 1996 law that calls for the government to collect biometrics — immutable characteristics such as iris scans or fingerprints — from every visitor who enters and exits the U.S.

The 1996 law was designed to ensure that temporary visitors go home when their visas expire.

The government does track arrivals at air and sea ports, and an internal Homeland Security study found it was feasible to collect information at departure, but that study put the cost at up to $9 billion over 10 years.

Airlines opposed the system, fearing missed flights and unhappy passengers and arguing it would require a major reconfiguration of airports.

Facing opposition from the industry and budget cutters, the exit portion of the system stalled.

But with some estimates arguing that more than 40 percent of illegal immigrants arrived in the U.S. legally but overstayed their visas, tracking comings and goings is important — and freighted with political controversy.

Indeed, a government audit released in July found that the Homeland Security Department had lost track of more than 1 million people it knew had arrived in the U.S. but who it could not prove had left.

During the Senate’s debate on an immigration bill this year, lawmakers rejected an effort to enforce current law and instead passed provisions that would require only photo checks, not biometrics, and limit them to land and sea ports.

Story Continues →