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Biometric exit system spawns U.S. immigration debate


Many Americans think the U.S. immigration system is urgently in need of reform. A Gallup poll conducted in January 2013 found that only 36 percent of Americans were satisfied with the current immigration situation in the United States.

The political response has focused on securing the border through heavy enforcement.  As a result, more than 20,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents operate along the borders, which is the highest number deployed in U.S. history and twice the level of a decade ago.

Americans also have demanded more technological controls over immigration procedures. U.S. law, namely the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, mandated the implementation of “entry-exit systems” at U.S. border crossings.

The U.S. government ultimately attempted to comply with the law through the creation of the US-VISIT program, now managed through the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM).  The program uses biometrics to verify the entry of legitimate visitors into the United States.

Originally, only visitors who required a visa inserted in their passport were included in the US-VISIT program. However, after September 2004, visitors eligible for the Visa Waiver Program have also been required to use the program. In January 2009, most non-U.S. citizens, including lawful permanent residents, were subject to US-VISIT requirements.

Biometrics collected by OBIM is linked to specific biographic data in order to establish and verify a person’s identity. With each encounter, from applying for a visa to seeking immigration benefits to entering the U.S., OBIM checks a person’s biometrics against a watch list of known or suspected terrorists, criminals and immigration violators.

The office also checks against a fingerprint database to determine if a person is using an alias and attempting to use fraudulent identification, along with cross-verifying a person’s biometrics against those associated with the identification document presented at the border to ensure that the document belongs to the person presenting it and not someone else.

OBIM provides the results of its biometric checks to Border Patrol agents when and where they need it.  It is estimated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that every day, 30,000 authorized federal, state and local government users query OBIM’s biometric data in order to accurately identify people and determine whether they pose a risk to the United States.

OBIM supplies the technology for collecting and storing biometric data, provides analysis of the data to decision makers, and ensures the integrity of the data.  By using biometrics, OBIM aims to prevent the use of fraudulent documents, protect visitors from identity theft and stop thousands of criminals and immigration violators from entering the country.  Though the OBIM undertakes biometric collection and verification at entry, it does not process many outgoing visitors to actually verify their exit.

Therefore, while the entry capability specified by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act is complete, universal exit checks are not yet in place. DHS collects biographic exit data at airports, seaports, and the northern land border, but no biometric collection takes place on exit, and no mandatory collection of exit data exists at the southern land border. The DHS has publicly stated that advancing and improving its existing biographic collection process is a major priority, considering the backbone of the U.S. criminal justice system is built on biographic data.

As a consequence, members of Congress have actively attempted to legislate the development of a fully-functional entry-exit system. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 explicitly required and called for the acceleration of US-VISIT’s efforts to create an automated biometric entry and exit data system. While the DHS made progress on the entry portion of US-VISIT, the exit system has not been implemented.

Congress repeated its demand for a biometric exit system in 2007, setting a deadline of 2009. That deadline came and went with only two small pilot programs. Since then, DHS has continued its slow move to meet this requirement in what the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has called “a long-standing challenge for DHS”.

In an effort to address the challenge, U.S. Customs and Border Protection created a new office to advance biometric entry-exit transformation in May 2013. The office’s stated mission is to enhance the integrity of the immigration system through strengthening processes that assure traveler identity. The goal of the new office is to accurately verify who arrives at U.S. ports of entry and to determine who is abiding by the terms of their admission and who is not, while enhancing border security and facilitating travel.

To accomplish this goal, CBP’s approach will include a “holistic assessment” of operational processes and an evaluation of a variety of technologies.  This will include testing and deploying new biometric technologies while building on existing biographic data collection; and implementing a non-intrusive technology that is transparent to the traveler.

While CBP already collects nearly 100 percent of all departure data from foreign nationals who depart the United States via air and sea ports of entry, the agency is building on this by partnering with Canada to exchange entry information, so that entry information collection by one country is recorded as an exit for the other.  The United States and Canada have special agreements for visa-free travel, and currently most Canadians are not subject to US-VISIT. U.S. citizens are not required to be digitally finger scanned or photographed when they enter United States territory.

In 2011, the United States and Canada entered into a “perimeter security pact” that committed both countries to establish a coordinated entry and exit information system.  Aimed at helping identify threats as early as possible through a common approach to perimeter screening, the entry-exit initiative allows both countries to identify persons who potentially overstay their lawful period of admission. It also facilitates better monitoring of the departure of persons subject to removal orders and verifies that applicants are meeting their residency requirements for continued eligibility in immigration programs.

While similar discussions have just started with the Government of Mexico, CBP remains confident that its bi-national deliberations will also result in new opportunities for biographical data exchange.   The true challenge is that Mexico does not have a system to convey entry-exit records to the United States from any of its points of entry.

Today, biographic exit capability is deployed everywhere but the land border with Mexico, where vehicle travelers depart the country at speed and no systematic or mandatory collection occurs. This is a large gap, since about 45 percent of all entry inspections—land, air, or sea—occur at the southwest land border.

A new report by the Bipartisan Policy Center, comes to the same conclusions.  The report, “Entry-Exit System: Progress, Challenges, and Outlook,” ultimately observes that while biometric identifiers have greater potential for accuracy than biographic identifiers, its ultimately concludes that this benefit has not been proven in real-world settings. Additional testing and piloting will be needed to prove capability.  The report also notes that in order to establish a high level of confidence in entry-exit data, a biometric exist system would have to cover all land, air, and sea points of entry in the United States along with data sharing from bordering countries. The more points of entry or travelers that are omitted from entry or exit tracking, the less confident DHS can be that an individual actually overstayed.

The report identifies that the southwest land border presents the greatest challenge to completing the entry-exit system. Land points of entry have about five entry lanes for each exit lane, and a variety of challenges, most notably insufficient space and economic impacts, which prevents the construction of an exit infrastructure that “mirrors” the entry system.

Any potential southern border solutions may be years away.  This infuriates the right side of the political spectrum in the United States which believes all individuals crossing the border should  be tracked using biometrics.  Groups such as the Center for Immigration Studies contend that the imbalance in the U.S. exit-entry system poses a threat to national security. The group, labelled as an anti-immigration think tank by the Anti-Defamation League, notes that weak exit systems can allow foreign visitors to overstay their visas or cause DHS to overlook individuals whose malicious intent was not known at the time of entry. For these reasons, the Center recommends that exit capabilities should be enhanced.

More moderate groups on both sides of the political spectrum however note that vast logistical challenges confront the DHS in terms of exit system implementation.  The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, notes that while the extra requirement to collect biometric identifiers upon departure seems simple, it in fact, would be a monumental undertaking. The main reason is that because America’s international airport infrastructure does not provide a single point through which all foreign passengers depart. Consequently, biometrics would have to be collected at the gates of the over 2,000 international flights that leave the U.S. each day.

While the DHS has run two modest demonstration projects to begin testing this process, both demos have concluded that biometric collection technology is not a problem, but logistics, policy and cost are.  Due to logistical issues, airlines refused to participate in these projects.  The DHS has therefore determined that  the task of collecting fingerprints will require deployment of many extra full-time federal employees to the airports. The fingerprint collection system is also likely to increase boarding times and even delay departures.  The Heritage Foundation also argues that the rudimentary demonstration projects undertaken by the DHS did not even attempt to compare passenger fingerprints to federal databases. Also, during the test, federal agencies did not begin to assess how they would use this data. Would visa-overstayers be taken off the plane or allowed to leave? Would they be charged with a crime or levied a fine? Would the plane have to wait until a decision is made?

The Heritage Foundation therefore argues that biometric technology alone will not provide a solution to the entry-exit challenge. It notes that the focus must be situated around the departure process, which is extremely sensitive to change. Any delays or negative impacts can quickly ripple across the entire air transportation system.  The Heritage Foundation also argues that a full exit system would be cost ineffective, as it deems biographic data as useful as biometric data in aiding in enforcement.

While the non-partisan Bipartisan Policy Center notes in its report that a biometric solution appears technologically feasible at airports and seaports, it argues a large gap exists, however, between technological feasibility and real-world implementation. In the air and sea environments, DHS is still working to develop and test a concept of operations that fulfills biometric identifiers’ considerable potential to produce accurate matches, while minimizing impacts to the already crowded travel environment. Implementing a system that is likely to work as intended will require further research and development, followed by an iterative roll-out that enables DHS to apply early lessons to later adopters.

In identifying advantageous characteristics of a biometric exit system, the report determines that enhancements to the system, including the introduction of biometric and biographic capabilities, would offer four main benefits to immigration enforcement: enhanced statistical data, denial of admission or visas for previous violations, a more efficient threat assessment environment, and additional interior immigration enforcement. These benefits would allow DHS to track and locate overstay populations, deny visas to visitors who have overstayed in the past, and avoid wasting law enforcement resources on individuals who have already left or adjusted status.

The southern land border however presents a significant barrier to completing the exit system. This challenge, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center will be difficult to overcome in the near- or medium-term. If DHS were to implement a biometric exit system before all logistical and technical questions are answered, it would be unlikely to provide the full benefits it is designed to achieve.

Despite this determination, members in Congress are still determined to pursue exit system implementation.  Most recently, a Michigan Republican introduced a biometric exit improvement bill in 2013, which attempts to increase the budget, training and deployment time surrounding an exit system.

While right-leaning politicians and pressure groups angle to enforce these measures due to perceived threats from the southern border, left-leaning groups note that migration flows between Mexico and the United States have been at net zero since 2007, primarily due to declining U.S. economic opportunity. Most moderate groups argue that the way to improve immigration flow and compliance is through rethinking biometric exit measures and enforcing existing immigration laws.

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