Tuesday morning’s Judiciary Committee mark-up confirms that, if enacted, the Gang of Eight Immigration bill, S.744, would weaken homeland security and immigration enforcement. The committee rejected an amendment offered by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) that would have required the use of a biometric entry and exit system at all air, sea and land ports of entry. This requirement already exists , having been enacted by Congress 17 years ago, but like so many other enforcement promises, has never been kept.

The Gang of Eight bill only requires the use of biographical information upon exiting the United States, and only at air and sea ports, but not land border crossings. The background information below from Sen. Sessions’ office explains why these protections that would be removed under S.744 are important to our homeland security:

Sessions’ amendment would require the use of a biometric entry and exit system at all ports of entry before the adjustment to LPR status (after RPI status has already been granted).

After 17 years and multiple acts of Congress requiring biometric exit, it still has not been implemented despite the strong urging of the 9/11 commission as being needed for our nation’s security. Instead, S. 744 undermines this congressional requirement and does not call for a biometric system but a much-weaker and fraud-prone biographic system and, further, exempts land ports of entry.

We already know that anything less than what is in current law will not be effective. GAO has stated that a biographic exit system, like the one set forth in S. 744, will only hinder efforts to reliably identify overstays, and that without a biometric exit system, “DHS cannot ensure the integrity of the immigration system by identifying and removing those people who have overstayed their original period of admission—a stated goal of US-VISIT.”

This is a serious problem because, as the Government Accountability Office reported, about 40 percent of the illegal population in this country is composed of those who have overstayed their visas. Most of the 9/11 hijackers entered on nonimmigrant visas and several overstayed their period of admission undetected by law enforcement. Since then, at least 36 individuals who overstayed their visas have been convicted of terrorism-related charges, including Amine el-Khalifi, who attempted to bomb the U.S. Capitol last year.

Additional Detail:
Seventeen years ago in 1996, Congress first adopted a requirement for an entry-exit system because we knew that our government couldn’t accurately track who was entering and leaving the United States. (Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act)

In 2000, Congress passed another law requiring the entry-exit system to be implemented at all air, sea, and land ports of entry. (Immigration and Naturalization Service Data Management Improvement Act of 2000)

Again in 2000, when amending the Visa Waiver Program, Congress required a “fully automated entry and exit control system” to record entry and departure information for all aliens participating in the program. Congress also required the passports be machine-readable. (Visa Waiver Permanent Program Act)

After 9/11, Congress once again demanded the implementation of an entry-exit system through passage of the PATRIOT Act. The intent of Congress was crystal-clear:

“In light of the terrorist attacks perpetrated against the United States on September 11, 2001, it is the sense of the Congress that the Attorney General, in consultation with the Secretary of State, should fully implement the integrated entry and exit data system for airports, seaports, and land border ports of entry… with all deliberate speed and as expeditiously as practicable.

Importantly, as part of the PATRIOT Act, Congress demanded that the entry-exit system be biometric.

According to DHS’s own website: “Unlike names and dates of birth, which can be changed, biometrics are unique and virtually impossible to forge. Collecting biometrics helps the U.S. government prevent people from using fraudulent documents to enter the country illegally. Collecting biometrics also helps protect your identity in the event your travel documents are lost or stolen.”

In 2002, Congress reiterated its demand for a biometric entry-exit system at all ports of entry of the United States, requiring that DHS issue aliens “only machine-readable, tamper-resistant visas and other travel and entry documents that use biometric identifiers.” It also required that the government install biometric readers and scanners “at all ports of entry in the United States.” (Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act)

In 2002, DHS initiated the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology Program, or US-VISIT, to develop this system. Two years later, US-VISIT was collecting biometric data on aliens entering the U.S.

In 2004, Congress again demanded a biometric entry exit system through the passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004:
“Congress finds that completing a biometric entry and exit data system as expeditiously as possible is an essential investment in efforts to protect the United States by preventing the entry of terrorists.”

“The Secretary of Homeland Security shall develop a plan to accelerate the full implementation of an automated biometric entry and exit data system.”

Currently, an entry capability is operating at approximately 300 (115 airports, 14 seaports, and 154 of 170 land ports) U.S ports of entry. However, a corollary exit program has never gotten beyond the pilot stage, despite widespread congressional support. Because of that, it is impossible to know exactly how many aliens have overstayed their period of admission.

After years of assurances that DHS was working toward implementing this system, it appears that they have quietly terminating the last pilot program – and there are several over the years – in 2011. The President’s FY2013 budget proposal does not specifically request money for biometric exit, and cuts $73 million for border security fencing, infrastructure, and technologies, and $6.7 million for technology modernization. DHS is now implementing a biographic exit system instead, which GAO has said is insufficient.