Opinion: For non-resident exit-tracking on southern border, let's go back to basics

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will begin implementing biometric exit-tracking technology at some U.S. airports more than a year from now, and the technology they will use is like something out of Tom Cruise’s "Minority Report."

But is this the best way to keep track of who is leaving the country? On its own, not yet.

The 2016 Omnibus Appropriations Act authorized up to $1 billion in fees over 10 years to fund the build-up of biometric exit-tracking for non-U.S. citizens and residents. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testified in June that he directed CBP to begin adding the technologies and processes, so that by 2018 the agency can collect biometric data, “starting at the highest volume airports.”

Currently, the technologies that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is testing to collect biometric data include facial and iris scanning systems.

On the one hand, this is good news. The United States has almost no idea who is leaving (or not leaving) the country. On the other hand, the advanced technologies that collect biometric data at airports are, on their own, insufficient for the far greater exit-tracking challenge at land and sea ports of entry.

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The simple fact is that the United States is implementing an exit-tracking system because of the lack of exit compliance by a large percentage of people who cross the southern border. Figuring out how to collect biometric data at land ports is the core issue at hand.

New tech OK for airports, not the southern border

I have to give credit to CBP. They are thinking outside the box by testing new technologies. In June, for example, CBP launched a test at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport using automated “facial comparison technology,” which takes a photo of a departing traveler and automatically compares it to a photo taken on entry. There have been other tests at the Otay Mesa land port of entry in California using facial, iris and fingerprint scanning technologies. Both tests were a closed loop system that simply tested whether the technology even works and did not draw from or add to existing biometric databases.

While these kinds of technologies may well be the future of exit-tracking, they are currently insufficient solutions across all ports of entry. There are three ways an individual can transit a port: as a pedestrian, in a personal vehicle or in a commercial vehicle such as a bus or semi-truck. Integrating new technology at airports is a straightforward proposition because every air traveler is a pedestrian after they exit the plane.

At land and sea ports, however, travelers use different modes of transportation, which means the facial scanning technology must be able to capture images of people on foot as well as in a range of vehicles. Consider a person who enters the United States as a pedestrian but leaves in a commercial vehicle – current technology cannot address such a scenario.

More challenging for land ports, however, is the sheer volume of people crossing the southern border. Implementing exit-tracking at airports is not comparable to land ports (something congressmen and committees from non-border states might not fully understand). There are hundreds of thousands of border crossings per day across the U.S. southern border. DHS officials testified in January, “For the land environment, a brute force approach to biometric exit would require building and staffing of hundreds of outbound lanes,” which will yield enormous, recurring costs in terms of man hours and slowed cross-border commercial flows. The $1 billion allocated in the 2016 Omnibus Appropriations Act is nowhere near the actual cost for land port exit-tracking as currently imagined.

Facial scanning and other new technologies are, at least for now, not a complete solution to the exit-tracking challenge. What we need to do is pair these new technologies with traditional, reliable technology and databases.

Go back to the basics

Fingerprint scanning must be a part of whatever system we implement. The existing database of biometric details is founded on fingerprints. With today’s technology, fingerprints cannot be faked, and it’s a system American taxpayers have already bought. To put it to work, we just need to deploy more fingerprint scanners.

And whereas an automated camera cannot consistently and accurately scan faces in a passing car, it’s not too onerous to have car passengers reach out of the window and put their fingers on a scanner. That may not be the best long-term solution, but it does work, and randomized scanning could enhance feasibility as other technologies are developed and improved.

The other half of a workable solution to exit-tracking on the southern border is partnership with Mexico. Currently, Mexican immigration has no idea who is crossing the border; the first checkpoints in Mexico are some 18 miles inland. What’s needed is a program like that between the United States and Canada — we share entry tracking data. Entry data for the United States is synonymous with exit data for Canada, and vice versa. Sharing that data closes the entry-exit loop.

While there are far more people traveling across the southern border than the northern one, the concept of partnership and data sharing is proven to work. Of course, Canada is a willing partner, and while there are some leaders in Mexico who have recently shown a readiness to build relationships and work with the United States, for the most part, there is not much appetite for entry-exit tracking in Mexico.

It is beneficial for America to have a vibrant travel and tourism industry, and we want people from other countries to visit family, buy our products and enjoy the American experience. When the visa expires, however, a legal visit becomes an illegal overstay. Exit-tracking moves us towards an immigration system that actually can be enforced.

And that will require a more workable plan incorporating known and proven technologies and processes with new ones.