There are an estimated one million foreigners who may not have left the United States before their visas expired in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) system, according to an U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released on Tuesday. Inadequate implementation of a tracking system at air, sea, and land ports are contributing to “unmatched arrival records” that do not correspond with departure records, meaning large numbers of individuals are unaccounted for by DHS. The Senate immigration bill now waiting for House action would strongly enhance DHS tracking capabilities, in part through a biometric exit system that tracks departures.
As it stands, the government only collects biographical information and two fingerprints when foreign visitors depart the United States. But as the GAO data suggests, the current biographic system is weak. Hence, the ability to track immigrants entering and departing the U.S. is heavily embedded into the border security provisions of the Senate immigration bill. The bill requires the implementation of a biographic exit system that collects passport and visa information from departing foreigners. Within two years of the bill’s enactment, a biographic exit system that collects passport and visa information from departing foreigners needs to be implemented. Also within two years of the bill’s implementation, a pilot biometric exit program will be put into the ten most trafficked international airports in the U.S. Six years from the bill’s enactment, the biometric exit program will be expanded to seaports and 30 major international airports in the U.S.
The GAO criticized the DHS implementation plan for not having a time frame and milestone, but the DHS aims to “finalize the goals and objectives for biometric exit by January 31, 2014.” Additionally, the Senate immigration bill has set an implementation time frame and milestone contingent on legal status. As a matter of fact, the Senate bill imposed a stringent requirement that the “proposed enforcement measures be complete before any immigrant on probationary status can earn a green card.” In other words, the system must be put in place before immigrants can become permanent residents.
Although the GAO found that one million people were unaccounted for in 2013, it is likely that an astronomically lower number of visa overstayers are in the country. When the GAO reported in 2011 that there were 1.6 million unmatched records, the DHS reviewed and closed over 863,000 records for people who left the country, adjusted their status, or were removed from the backlog. Of the remaining records that received extra scrutiny, the DHS found 266 cases where the individual could not be located and only nine cases that led to the individual’s arrest.
It is now up to the House of Representatives to take up the Senate immigration bill and address future unmatched records.