The United States is a nation of laws, under which all citizens and residents are equal. Or, at least, they’re supposed to be. Unfortunately, while laws can be objective, human beings seldom are, and we rightly guard against the unequal application of law and consequence.
In the current debate over how to address illegal immigration to the United States, some have cautioned that a rigorous effort to enforce visa laws can lead to profiling and potentially a violation of civil rights. That’s a fair concern, and it’s one that can be addressed if we provide U.S. law enforcement with the tools to do their job. When it comes to immigration, that means an exit-tracking system.
Historically, about half of those who come to the United States legally on a visa leave when they are supposed to—and half don’t. This is a problem that has been piling up for decades, leaving millions of people in the country who at one time or another stepped off the legal path. That it has gotten to a point where the sheer number of people here illegally make it impossible to enforce the law as it stands (kicking 11 million people out of the country en masse is not realistic) speaks to the utter failure of how we enforce visa and immigration laws.
As I’ve written previously, the United States has no means of tracking who leaves the country, particularly across the southern border. After more than a decade of political handwringing and buck passing, we are still no closer to tracking which visitors to the United States leave when they are supposed to and which ignore the law and stay illegally.
This puts law enforcement in an impossible situation. On one hand, they are charged with upholding the law, including laws dictating who can come to the United States and for how long. On the other hand, law enforcement must ensure they are not treading on constitutional rights by unfairly stopping and questioning someone based on a variety of subjective factors (which some might characterize as profiling).
This Catch-22 almost guarantees there will be instances where laws are not upheld and rights are not respected. A shoot-from-the-hip approach to identifying illegal immigrants is not, in the words of President James Madison, “equal laws protecting equal rights.” It’s the consequence of not giving law enforcement the tools and information they need to do what we ask of them—enforce the law, including all standing immigration laws.
What is required is a method for ensuring the law can be consistently, equally applied, and an exit-tracking system would help achieve that. Consider two individuals who separately come to the United States on six-month permits. The first person leaves the country across a border on the date their visa demands, and with an exit-tracking system, their departure is recorded and their name taken off a list of U.S. visa holders residing inside our borders.
The other person does not leave when they are supposed to, and the moment their visa expires, it triggers a warrant for arrest. If and when that individual is stopped by law enforcement (for any number of reasons), the police database will show a warrant and the officer simply executes it. No discussion of nationality or ethnicity. No guesswork on the part of police. It’s all about the law. This has the added advantage of protecting law enforcement from unwarranted claims of bias and discrimination.
With entry/exit-tracking, we can foster true equality and begin to address our nation’s immigration woes in a way that respects the individual and the law. The question now is whether Washington can rise above its rhetoric and take legitimate steps to address illegal immigration. If we value the law, we have no other option
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