Border insecurity endures



Border insecurity endures
Washington Post: Since 1996, Congress has passed a series of laws requiring federal border security officials to collect information on foreign nationals leaving the United States. The goal: to match it with data gathered when those nationals entered the country, creating a database listing all of the non-resident aliens -- minus most Canadians, who are exempt from the program -- in the country at any one time, including information on how long they have been cleared to stay and when they must leave.
If compiled correctly, proponents argue, a searchable pool of border crossing data would do more than just assist in catching a few small-time violators of immigration law. Many of the Sept. 11 hijackers resided in the United States past their visa expiration dates. Overstaying a visa can be a real warning sign of terrorism.
The Department of Homeland Security's 2-year-old US-VISIT program reliably tracks only those who enter the country, not those who exit. American border officials take photographs of and gather fingerprints from non-resident aliens entering at land border posts, airports and seaports while those exiting breeze past border guards on the way out.
Chertoff's new plan
Now Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says that his department will focus on tracking airport exit traffic, neglecting land border crossings until new technology makes it feasible to collect biometric information without backing up traffic for miles in Detroit, San Diego and other busy border posts. A recent Government Accountability Office report estimates that will take another five to 10 years. Mr. Chertoff argues that targeting airports in the meantime will allow Homeland Security to gather exit data from most of the non-Canadian and non-Mexican foreign nationals exiting the United States, which is better than not gathering any information at all.
But if the database is significantly incomplete, it's of little use. Homeland Security officials will not be able to rely on it to tell them if a foreign national flew in and never left or if he merely drove out without border officers taking note. If Congress and others are right that reliably tracking the movements of only a few individuals might mean the difference between catching a terrorist on American soil or not, then Homeland Security's logistical shortcomings along the country's borders need fixing, and not 10 years from now.

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