Nearly half the people now in the U.S. illegally didn't climb walls, wade across the Rio Grande or trek through the desert to get here. They arrived legally, with tourist or student visas. And when those visas expired, they just never left.
Like the rest of the 11 million undocumented people in the United States, they are part of the underground economy and the government doesn't know where they are. The Senate immigration bill now before Congress tries to address this problem — though not as richly as it does border security.
When visitors arrive in the U.S., a Customs and Border Protection officer takes their fingerprints and photographs. This program, known until recently as "US-VISIT," is the largest biometric database in the world.
Biometrics — all those fingerprints and photographs — are more secure than paper because they're harder to tamper with or fake. They can be used to track criminals and potential terrorists, and they can also be used to keep track of visitors who might overstay visas and become undocumented immigrants.
But there's a flaw. Right now, US-VISIT only registers people when they arrive, not when they depart.
A Long-Unfulfilled Mandate
"The only way you know which people have overstayed their visa is by knowing who has left and honored the terms of their visa," says Mark Krikorian, who heads the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that wants stronger immigration enforcement.
Krikorian says an exit visa check would give the government a better idea of who the millions of people who overstay their visas actually are. "You wouldn't necessarily be able to chase everyone down within 48 hours, but you'd at least know who had overstayed and you'd be able to take steps to deal with it," he says.
The Senate's current immigration bill mandates an exit visa check, but that's nothing new; it's mandated such checks six times in the past 17 years. With the exception of one unsuccessful pilot study at two airports, the exit mandate hasn't been fulfilled.
Even the current Senate bill only requires an exit visa system for airports and seaports, not land ports, where three-quarters of the nation's visitors enter each year.
Juan Osorio, CBP supervisor at the land port at Nogales, Ariz., says that's because the situation there is a lot different than at an airport. "At an airport, you're in a controlled environment. You have a previous information list of who's coming on those flights," he says.
But here, vehicles are backed up into Mexico, sometimes for hours. As they approach U.S. Customs officers in lanes, a camera snaps a photo of each car's license plate. There's about 30 seconds of lead time for the officer to figure out who's in front of him, and the license plate reader doesn't register everyone who's in the vehicle.
"So the officer has to enter each person's information into the computer," Osario says. "That's gonna take some time."
The Land-Port Problem
Jay Ahern, a former CBP commissioner who is now a private security consultant, says putting in an exit visa checking system at airports and seaports alone will be tough. But putting it in land ports would require a huge effort — similar to the buildup of fencing, technology and border patrol agents now deployed in between those ports.
"It's a staffing problem; it is a facility and logistics problem; it is a traffic flow problem," Ahern says.
CBP would need to build new lanes and new booths and would need to staff them. Even with an exit system, you'd only know who is missing — not where they are. Unless you want DHS officers knocking on every door in the country, that is.
"I think that that becomes a real serious consideration that people need to thoughtfully consider all the way through," Ahern says.
That's not a politically palatable option in a free society. Which may be one reason border militarization keeps getting the big bucks — even if it only addresses a little more than half the illegal immigration problem.
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