The United States Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator
Technology (US-VISIT) program was established by the Department of
Homeland Security (DHS) to record foreign visitors and workers
leaving the country. Intended to track a person's immigration and
visa status and alert authorities to expired visas, US-VISIT has
yet to be fully implemented. DHS has found it particularly
difficult to determine how to put the system in place at U.S. land
borders with points of exit scattered over thousands of miles where
hundreds of millions enter every year.
Establishing a system of voluntary land border exit checks for
selected temporary worker programs could be an important first step
in implementing an effective and cost-efficient program. It also
could serve as an invaluable management tool for ensuring these
types of visas are not abused.
On the Border
Congressional requirements for better means to monitor visa
programs and reduce "overstays" (individuals who remain in the
country unlawfully after the terms of their visas have expired) are
not new. Congress first demanded entry-exit checks in law in 1996,
and for good reason. By some estimates, overstays account for 40
percent or more of the unlawfully present population. It was not,
however, until after 9/11 and creation of DHS that this mandate was
Yet, six years after 9/11, the system is not fully implemented.
DHS has found putting a system in place at the land border
especially problematic. Part of the problem is the potential cost
of slowing traffic at busy border crossings even further. In 2007,
for example, a report by the San Diego Association of Governments
found that delays cost $5.1 billion in lost output and 51,500 lost
jobs in that year alone. DHS has also encountered a myriad of other
infrastructure and technical issues.
Value of Exit
Despite the challenges and costs involved in implementing exit
on the land border, it is a system still worth doing--but not
because it will be particularly helpful in tracking specific
individuals (such as suspected terrorists). With hundreds of
millions of potential transactions every year, even a small error
rate will mean tens of thousands of false reports.
Additionally, even indicating that an individual may have
remained unlawfully in the United States is not very useful
information for law enforcement in and of itself. That individual
would be just one of the 12 million-15 million foreigners
unlawfully here or might have just exited the border in a location
other than an exit transit point.
On the other hand, the overall numbers (even accounting for an
acceptable error rate) would be very useful to DHS for auditing
compliance with U.S. visa programs, particularly for identifying
which categories of visas and what countries may be guilty of
excessive overstay rates.
One option may be for DHS to establish voluntary checkout
stations or processes for certain visa categories. These might not
have to be at the border points of exit. Voluntary stations could
be established in a manner to minimize concerns about congestion
and requirements for extensive infrastructure. Processes for exit
could be established to provide incentives for maximum compliance.
These would include:
- Incentives for employers. Require employers of workers
holding temporary visas to post bonds, returnable when the worker
checked out. Employers would encourage workers to check out both to
get back their bond and to ensure that the worker could return the
- Incentives for temporary workers. Workers who did not
check out would be barred from participating in future worker
programs. Those that did comply would be automatically eligible to
participate in future worker programs (absent other disqualifying
factors such as contagious diseases or criminal convictions).
- Incentives for countries. Countries whose citizens
participated in the visa programs and who exceeded a 2 percent
overstay rate would find their citizens barred from participating
in these visa programs.
Putting Exit Checks in Place
Congress and the Administration should work together to reform
existing visa programs and create pilot temporary worker programs
employing a voluntary land-border exit component.
James Jay Carafano,
Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom
Davis Institute for International Studies and Senior Research
Fellow in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy
Studies at The Heritage Foundation.