Immigration Reforms and Border Security Technologies
Published on: Jul 31, 2006

“Virtual borders” and “virtual fences” may look good in powerpoint presentations but their practical implementation may require politically unpopular measures for which decision-makers are unwilling to spend their political capital. For example, the Bush Administration has been unwilling to require US-VISIT enrollment of all Canadians and Mexicans entering the U.S., let alone U.S. citizens, and Congress has been unwilling to pass legislation to mandate it. These US-VISIT exemptions open a major security gap because terrorists could pose as US-VISIT-exempt citizens who may enter the U.S. without a passport. Due to political pressures generated by border state economic interests, Congress appears ready to delay closing this security gap for another one and a half years. U.S. passports cost just under $100 and are valid for ten years, but ten dollars per year is apparently too much for Congress to ask of Americans in order to plug a big hole in U.S. border security.

Members of Congress have had no difficulty voting for bills that require 10 fingerprints from citizens of other countries but they have not been willing even to debate increasing the security of U.S. passports by including fingerprints, a measure that EU member states have agreed to take. If Congress and the President cannot even follow through on implementing existing legislation that will require U.S. citizen travelers to have passports, requiring fingerprint biometrics in U.S. passports is not politically viable.

Given these challenges to implementing both US-VISIT and SBI, the Bush Administration and Congress might consider the opportunity costs in relation to spending on other forms of immigration law enforcement. Given that most illegal migrants come to the U.S. in order to work (or join family members already working illegally in the U.S.), investing some of the billions of dollars currently earmarked for US-VISIT and SBI into developing an effective employment eligibility verification system and hiring a sufficient number of labor regulation inspectors might enable effective internal enforcement of immigration laws, dry up demand for illegal migrant workers, and reduce the number of visa overstayers much more effectively and economically than attempting to collect exit data through US-VISIT and stop border crossers with a virtual fence.


1 I am very grateful to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for supporting my research and to the German Marshall Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation for my time as a fellow of the Bellagio Migration Dialogue, which inspired the writing of this essay.

2 Shruti Daté, “Immigration Service Patrols with Sensors and Video,” Government Computing News, Feb. 7, 2000.

3 Government Accountability Office (GAO), Report to Congressional Committees: Key Unresolved Issues Justify Reevaluation of Border Surveillance Technology Program, GAO-06-295, February 2006.

4 David Aguilar, Statement before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, April 28, 2005.

5 Wilson P. Dizard III and Alice Lipowicz, “DHS reshapes border technology plan,” Government Computing News, August 1, 2005.

6 Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, H.R.4437, Section 102.

7 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, S. 2611, section 754.

8 Secure Border Initiative Fact Sheet, November 2, 2005.

9 Transcript of SBInet Industry Day, Thursday, January 26, 2006. Accessed on July 1, 2006.

10 “Modes of Entry for the Unauthorized Migrant Population,” Pew Hispanic Center, Fact Sheet, May 22, 2006.

11 This section draws on Rey Koslowski, “Real Challenges for Virtual Borders: The Implementation of US-VISIT,” Migration Policy Insights, Migration Policy Institute, June 2005. Please refer to this report for references to data sources, other references and a more detailed and extensive analysis.

12 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, section 110.a.1, “Automated Entry-Exit Control System,” U.S. Congressional Record—House (September 28, 1996): H11787.

13 “DHS Completes Foundation of Biometric Entry System,” Department of Homeland Security, press release, December 2005.

14 “Mocny Appointed Acting Director of the US-VISIT Program,” US-VISIT Update, Department of Homeland Security, June 26, 2006.

15 For a full discussion of this point, see Koslowski, “Real Challenges for Virtual Borders,” op. cit. pp. 36-43.

16 Randolf C. Hite, testimony for oversight hearing, “US-VISIT—A Down Payment on Homeland Security,” House Committee on the Judiciary, March 18, 2004.

17 INTERPOL Presentation, Border Security 2006, Warsaw Poland, May 9-10, 2006.

18 “A Review of the Use of Stolen Passports from Visa Waiver Countries to Enter the United States,” Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General, OIG-05-07, December 2004.