DHS OIG auditing CBP’s biometric air exit system and overstay data reliability
Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) efforts to develop and implement a biometric exit capability is being investigated by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (IG) to “assess whether biometric data collected at [CBP] pilot locations has improved DHS’s ability to verify departures” in order to secure and manage US borders, the IG announced.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) had noted in its February 27, 2017 audit report, DHS Has Made Progress in Planning for a Biometric Air Exit System and Reporting Overstays, but Challenges Remain, that, “As CBP is in the process of finalizing its approach, it is too early to assess the agency’s plans for developing and implementing a biometric exit capability and the extent to which those plans will address identified challenges.”
DHS stated it is using a biometric verification system to confirm the departure of selected travelers at one airport and released its 2016 overstays report in late February 2017, according to GAO, which reported on CBP’s progress in its 2017 audit report. But the IG’s office has now gotten involved to investigate CBP’s problems with the program.
The IG’s recently initiated audit was opened to investigate CBP’s progress, widespread implementation plan, and continuing problems the program has and when they will be resolved.
Since GAO’s initial 2013 report on DHS’s efforts to develop a biometric exit capability to collect biometric data, such as fingerprints, from individuals exiting the United States, “CBP has been conducting four pilot programs to inform the development and implementation of a biometric exit system,” GAO said in its 2017 audit report.
At that time, GAO said, “CBP has made progress in testing biometric exit capabilities, but various longstanding planning, infrastructure, and staffing challenges continue to affect CBP’s efforts to develop and implement a biometric exit system.”
CBP originally stated 2018 was its goal for initial implementation of a biometric exit capability in at least one airport, and was working with airlines and airports on strategies for using public/private partnerships to reduce costs and give industry more control over how a biometric exit capability is implemented at airport gates.
“However,” GAO pointed out at the time, CBP “cannot complete the planning process until these partnership agreements and implementation decisions are finalized.”
GAO previously reported that “infrastructure limitations are a challenge to implementing a biometric air exit capability. For example, CBP noted that US airports generally do not have outbound designated secure areas for exiting travelers where biometric information could be captured by US immigration officers,” and that, “CBP recognize[ed] these challenges and intends to use the information gained from the pilot programs to identify biometric exit technology and staffing processes that are effective in the airport environment.”
Since GAO’s 2013 audit report, “DHS has reported some required information on potential overstays—individuals who are admitted to the country under a specific nonimmigrant category but exceed their lawful admission period—and has not changed its enforcement priorities for potential overstays. In January 2016, DHS issued its first report on estimated overstay rates that covered fiscal year 2015, which included some but not all overstay information required by statute. The report described expected overstay rates by country for foreign visitors lawfully admitted for business or pleasure through air and sea ports of entry (POE) who were expected to depart the United States in fiscal year 2015.”
“However,” GAO noted, “because of data reliability concerns, the report did not include all information required by law, including overstay rates for foreign visitors who entered the country through land POEs or under other nonimmigrant categories. According to DHS officials, the report for fiscal year 2016 will include reliable overstay rates on foreign students arriving through air and sea POEs. DHS expects to start reporting overstay rates for foreign visitors who entered the country through land POEs in the report for fiscal year 2017.”
GAO said DHS has improved its overstays reporting by, among other things, enhancing the systems it uses to process entry and exit biographic data for potential overstays and is exploring options to collect information from land POEs, but had “not changed its enforcement priorities with respect to potential overstays, continuing to focus its enforcement actions on individuals that may pose a national security or public safety risk. Specifically, in fiscal years 2013 through 2015, the agency reviewed approximately 2.7 million overstay leads and sent 26,982 of them (about 1 percent) to field offices for further investigation.
In 2004, DHS was required to develop a plan to accelerate full implementation of an automated biometric entry-exit system. In various reports, GAO identified a range of long-standing challenges DHS has faced in its efforts to develop and deploy this capability and to use entry and exit data to identify overstays. For example, in 2013, GAO recommended DHS establish timeframes and milestones for a biometric air exit evaluation framework, and to document the reliability of its overstay data. DHS concurred with the recommendations and addressed them.
GAO was asked to review DHS’s progress in developing a biometric exit capability, and its audit report examined DHS’s efforts since GAO’s 2013 report to: develop and implement a biometric exit capability; and report on and address potential overstays.
GAO reviewed statutes and DHS documents and interviewed DHS officials about biometric exit capability development and overstays reporting. GAO also observed four biometric entry and exit pilot programs and analyzed overstay data for fiscal years 2013 through 2015 (most recent at time of review).