On the U.S.-Mexico border, we have almost no idea who is leaving the country. Despite years of hearings, rulings, debates and study, the United States lacks a system to track individuals exiting across our southern border.
In discussing border security plans, some presidential candidates, like Senator Ted Cruz, have noted the need for an effective entry-exit system. To be fair, however, the political class has been emphasizing entry-exit for years, and we don’t have much to show for it.
Ensuring visitors are following the rules by checking out when they are supposed to, something that they agreed to when their visa was initially granted to them, would give a pretty clear picture of who is following the rules and those who choose to ignore the law.
- Nelson Balido
With statutory requirements, legislation, politics, rhetoric and a range of other factors, the complex matter of creating an effective biometric exit tracking system can get confusing. Yet, the heart of the challenge is quite simple. Here is breakdown of what we need when it comes to exit tracking on the U.S.-Mexico border and how we might get there:
In 2004, the 9/11 Commission, which was charged with identifying how to prevent another catastrophic terror attack, recommended creating a biometric entry-exit system. With a biometric-based record of who is coming and going, our security agencies are empowered to vet and track potential threats.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) tackled entry tracking first. It launched a biometric data collection and analysis program that today is run by the Department’s Office of Biometric Identity Management. While current entry tracking has its challenges, it is nevertheless a critical and effective part of the U.S. security apparatus.
There has not been equal progress in creating an exit tracking system, though it is just as important. Not documenting those who exit our country leaves a void in knowing who is here. Some 45 percent of illegal immigrants in the United States started as legal visitors who stayed when their visa expired. Ensuring visitors are following the rules by checking out when they are supposed to, something that they agreed to when their visa was initially granted to them, would give a pretty clear picture of who is following the rules and those who choose to ignore the law.
There are many reasons why we lack exit tracking capabilities, perhaps the most important being the sheer volume of people traveling back and forth across the U.S. southern border. There are as many as half a million crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border every day. Crossing are commercial vehicles, visitors in their private automobiles and pedestrians, many of which cross the border more than once in a day. Tracking hundreds of thousands of people coming and going every day seems unworkable, and in our current situation, it is. This massive volume is what is driving the exit tracking concerns and considerations.
Let me be clear: The #1 driving force behind this much-needed system is the consistent disregard for our immigration laws on the U.S.-Mexico border! I often hear Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or DHS officials talk of a biometric exit system, but they take the easy route to pointing out the need at airports. That could certainly help, but most people who arrive on an airplane to this country are listed on a travel manifest that also checks them out when they leave – not the case on the border.
We don’t have this problem on the U.S.-Canada border. The United States and Canada have effectively built a tracking and information sharing system that splits the effort. When people enter Canada, our northern neighbor sends that information to U.S. authorities. The United States reciprocates with Canada, yielding, in effect, an exit tracking system—or at least an approach.
Unfortunately, Mexico has no entry tracking at the border. Mexican nationals are waived on through, and while there are visa laws for non-nationals, at the border itself, Mexico is not keeping track of who is coming in.
Meanwhile on the U.S. side, there are valid concerns among municipalities near the border that a robust U.S.-driven exit tracking system may turn their towns in parking lots of people waiting to leave the country. And even if we found the leadership needed to truly move the needle on exit tracking, there are technical challenges involved in recording, sharing and cross-checking biometric data.
We are not even close to an exit tracking system. There is no shortage of recommendations and legislation, but this much-needed system is still largely conceptual. There are multiple steps needed to bring us closer to a workable system, and they must be preceded by acknowledging three things: 1) The purse holders and policy writers in Washington do not understand the local politics of the southern border; 2) We are not partnering with Mexico the way we should; and 3) Companies wishing to do business in this space need to find the proper guidance to navigate the minefields.
When it comes to politics, the border states have real, immediate concerns about illegal immigration and its impact on their communities and local economies. Any realistic exit tracking effort must consider the diverse challenges, needs and concerns of those Americans living on the frontlines of the border challenge.
At the same time, we need to engage Mexico more purposefully and construct an information-sharing relationship as we have with Canada. Mexico would bear the burden for tracking those coming into their country and sharing that information.
If legitimate efforts to enhance the U.S.-Mexico border security partnership do not succeed, it leaves the United States with little choice but to do it ourselves, whether that means contributing funding to Mexico’s entry tracking or building U.S. exit tracking capacity on the U.S.-side at the border.
More than a decade after the 9/11 Commission delivered its recommendations, we are no closer to the exit tracking that is essential for border security. Now is the time for real leadership at all levels of government to do what must be done. We have to build an exit tracking system. There can be no real border security without it.
Nelson Balido is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido