According to recent reports, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is exploring ways to implement biometric technology such as facial and iris recognition at land border points of entry and exit. Despite the novelty of biometrics, it is important to remember that they are not a universal solution for an entry-exit system.
At a Wilson Center event earlier in February, several border security experts explained that a biometric exit system is not a silver bullet or cost-effective, a view shared by Heritage Foundation analysis.
In 1996, Congress mandated the establishment of an integrated entry-exit system. Several laws proposed since then have repeated the call for an entry-exit system, including adding a requirement that it be fully biometric. Even the recent immigration guidelines released by House Republicans called for biometric data collection.
The United States currently collects biographic data and biometrics from non-citizens at air and sea ports of entry and exit. Despite a Congressional mandate, the U.S. still lacks a comprehensive system for land border points of entry and exit. Canada and the U.S. share biographic entry information, creating a de facto exit system for our northern border. However, no similar agreement exists with Mexico for the southern border, and exit information there is not collected.
The need for a complete exit system is real; without it, there is no way to accurately track visa overstays. Yet, the problem is with the biometric mandate. A biometric system would not be cost-effective, and as Heritage has concluded, “[i]n most cases, a biographic system—based on names, country of citizenship, and other details on individuals’ backgrounds—would be just as effective as a biometric one but at a fraction of the cost.”
Executive Director of Entry/Exit Transformation Office at Customs & Border Protection (CBP) Colleen Manaher also spoke at the Wilson Center event and outlined the CBP’s plan to implement an integrated entry-exit system.
Manaher agreed that biometrics are not needed everywhere because they are expensive, labor-intensive, and time-consuming. Instead of universal biometrics, Manaher called for the collection of 100 percent of the biographic data from foreigners at both ports of entry and exit. She recommended the use of targeted biometrics in cooperation with intelligence agencies on a risk-management basis.
Manaher and the rest of the event panel also stressed the need to balance security with free trade and called for an increase in frequent traveler pre-approval programs such as Global Entry and PreCheck. These programs not only speed the entry of trusted travelers, but, by reducing the number of unidentified travelers, they also help DHS focus its screening efforts on travelers of unknown risk.
The need for better border security and an entry-exit system is clear. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson has rightly acknowledged, “Good border security is a barrier to terrorist threats, drug traffickers, transnational criminal organizations, and other threats to national security and public safety.” Congress should rethink its biometric mandate and focus on enhancing biographic data collection and supporting trusted traveler programs.
Jared Ferris is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.