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.
Those who backed the change said the government has proved that it won't ever meet the biometric standard.
"Current law is a concept. And there is apparently not a whole lot of will by Republicans or Democrats to make the concept a reality," Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said during the debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Janet A. Napolitano, as homeland security secretary, testified that the photo method the Senate was proposing was nearly as good.
"The difference between that and a biometric is not as great as you would think," she said. "That is our current plan, to do enhanced biographic at the exits of our country — land, air and sea — and then move gradually, because it's very, very expensive, into biometric."
During the Senate debate, lawmakers did adopt an amendment creating a biometric pilot program at some airports, but Ms. Kephart said the final bill conflicts with itself so it's not clear what exactly is required.
The debate has shifted to the House, where there are competing proposals. The House Judiciary Committee approved a bill setting a two-year deadline for the administration to implement current law. A bill that cleared the Homeland Security Committee would give federal authorities the option of coming up with an alternative strategy — as long as it met the same security goals.
Ms. Kephart's solution applies only to air and sea ports. She said land border crossings require a different solution — though she said that, too, should be possible.
Bolstering her case in the report were industry players who said biometrics could be implemented.
The International Biometrics & Identification Association, in a letter to six senators during this year's immigration debate, said the technology has been tried and is reasonable.
"The industry is confident that it can implement an effective, reliable and efficient biometric exit program at U.S. airports that process international travelers, using proven and reliable off the shelf technologies and without disrupting airline operations and passenger travel," Tovah LaDier, the association's managing director, said in the letter.
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