After 17 years, still no biometric exit system

NIST image of eye for iris scan

Seventeen years after a law mandated a biometric exit system, the work remains undone and contentious.

While lawmakers from both parties complained at a recent hearing about the almost two-decade delay, some questioned whether the effort would be worth the cost.

"After 17 years, we still have no exit system in place," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, (R-Va.) said during the Nov. 13 hearing.

A 1996 law called for the system, to allow immigration authorities to keep track of visa holders. Several deadlines have passed with no action being taken.

"The exit system needs to be completed. Forty percent of undocumented aliens are on visa overstays," said South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy.

Gowdy and Goodlatte were joined by committee members on the Democratic side who agreed that it is past time for a biometric system, but who predictably differed on how one might be implemented.

Technology experts at the hearing said costs for such systems have come down substantially since the Homeland Security Department last took a formal look at the technology in a 2008 study, which pegged the cost of a national system at about $3 billion.

However, falling costs in recent years might have made the system more affordable, testified Janice Kephart, former special counsel at the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and former counsel to the 9/11 Commission.

"The first-year implementation costs for all air and sea ports would range from $400 million to $600 million, even assuming significant cost overruns," she told the panel.

James Albers, senior vice president of MorphoTrust USA's Washington operations, told members that seven years ago, an iris recognition system cost more than $250,000. Now, systems are more compact and include facial recognition technology along with iris scans would cost only $10,000 to $15,000.

But costs are not the only concern.

"If it were easy to do, we would have done it in the 1990s," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who was an immigration attorney before coming to Congress. Lofgren acknowledged that the technology has improved, but said it must be implemented efficiently to make a difference. A closer analysis of how biometric systems could be implemented at air, sea and land ports was needed, Lofgren said, as well as a better understanding of what a biometric system would provide beyond what is being obtained with existing systems.

The liberal Lofgren at times seemed to echo the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has suggested that a biographic system would be equally effective at a much lower cost.

Another witness pointed out that all the technology in the world does little good without the will to investigate and prosecute violators.

While the ability to track millions of foreign visitors from entry and exit is a big piece of the immigration puzzle, the impact of a comprehensive biometric entry/exit system could lose its punch if enforcement efforts are lax, said Julie Myers Wood, president of compliance, federal practice and software solutions at Guidepost Solutions LLC and a former assistant secretary/director at Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Homeland Security Investigations arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Wood, spends only 1.8 percent of its enforcement hours on visa overstays.

For its part, DHS is moving aggressively on biometric technology, as well as optimizing its use of biographic systems, said David Heyman, assistant secretary for policy at the agency. When Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) asked whether Heyman could identify the estimated 5 million visa overstays currently in the United States, Heyman said DHS could identify them on a daily basis using existing systems.

He added that along with several ongoing trials of biometric systems and a joint entry/exit data exchange project with Canada, in 2014 DHS plans to deploy enhancements, including a Unified Overstay Case Management process, an enhanced Alien Flight Student data exchange, and an Enhanced Overstay Hot List that will consolidate immigration data from multiple systems to enable ICE employees to more quickly and easily identify relevant information on overstays.

The implementation of upgrades and new biometric systems could depend on the fate of immigration legislation. The Senate passed a comprehensive bill in the summer. House Republicans have said they are likely to take a piecemeal approach beginning sometime next year.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer covering acquisition, procurement and homeland security. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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