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New "Enhanced Biographic" System Effective for Tracking Visa Overstays

Author: Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow
September 14, 2011
Adfero Group

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Some fifteen years after Congress first mandated the creation of an “entry-exit” system for foreign visitors, the government has finally come up with an effective solution. The issue now is whether Congress will embrace a sensible approach or continue to insist on the utopian solution of a perfect biometric system.

John Cohen, the principal deputy coordinator for counterterrorism at DHS, yesterday told the House Homeland Security subcommittee on border and maritime security that the administration had developed an “enhanced biographic” system that will go a long way to tackling the problem of visitors who overstay visas. The issue has been a terrorism concern since 9/11, because several of the hijackers had overstayed visas. It has also been a big hole in U.S. efforts to deter illegal immigration.

Congress, and the 9/11 Commission, have insisted on a biometric exit system that would be the counterpart to the US-VISIT entry scheme. The problem has been that, even in the relatively controlled airport environment, there is no easy and efficient way to collect fingerprints from departing travelers. The land border environment is even harder.

Over the past several years, however, DHS has been steadily improving its ability to track overstays, primarily by using the passenger departure records provided by all airlines. Under the direction of Secretary Napolitano, DHS in May began using those records and others, including the US-VISIT entry records and various intelligence databases, to vet the roughly 1.7 million individuals who were thought to have overstayed their visas since the launch of US-VISIT in 2004. The results were striking. The review determined that 843,000 of the potential overstayers had already left the country or changed their status and were living in the United States legally. Of the remaining 839,000, just 2,100 were determined to warrant greater scrutiny on security or public safety grounds. ICE narrowed that list further to several hundred names, and determined that many of those were already in U.S. jails, had died, or in some case left the country as well. In the end, Cohen said, some “dozens” of new investigations were opened by ICE to track down the remaining individuals.

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