Saturday, December 23, 2006

Watching the Exits

NYT Editorial

In 1996, Congress ordered immigration officials to create a system to track everyone who enters the country and everyone who leaves. That sensible directive lay on a back burner until 9/11. The Department of Homeland Security then hastened to set up the U.S. Visit program, which requires people to be photographed and fingerprinted at ports of entry for checking against databases of terrorists and other undesirables.

That system has been running since 2004, and has plucked hundreds of bad people from the huge visitor stream without horribly disrupting tourism and business travel. But news came last week that the other half of the program — monitoring foreign travelers when they leave — has been abandoned.

The Homeland Security Department had hoped to begin tracking departures at the 50 busiest land border crossings by next December. But it has given up meeting that deadline after deciding that the cost — including time lost in long lines at the borders — would be prohibitive. Part of the problem is technological: tracking methods that would work are too expensive.

The Government Accountability Office, echoing the Bush administration’s conclusions, said that a cost-effective departure system may not emerge for five to 10 years. And so, after spending $1.7 billion since 2003 on the U.S. Visit program, the administration will keep doing what it has been doing at the nation’s land exits, which is basically nothing.

It’s good to know who’s leaving the country — and who isn’t. About a third of illegal immigrants are believed to be those who entered lawfully but stayed after their visas expired. Some of the 9/11 hijackers were in this group. Hunting such people down is not even theoretically possible until you know whom you are looking for.

There are a few lessons in this downbeat development. One is simply a reminder that faith in technology is easily misplaced. Border security is a paradoxical mission — maximizing the steady, efficient flow of tourists, students and seasonal workers while admitting exactly zero terrorists and visa- defying illegal immigrants. All this while respecting everyone’s privacy and not spending too much money. There may be a technological fix that will solve all these problems cheaply, but we could grow old and poor waiting for it.

Another is that the same people who make lofty arguments for things like sealed borders tend to disappear when the discussion gets down to the nitty-gritty of trade-offs and acceptable costs. Washington has tons of people who want to keep out terrorists and illegal immigrants, but far fewer who want to commit the time and money to a realistic discussion of how to do that. The Bush administration says that keeping Americans safe at home is the overriding mission of our time. But it has allowed distractions to get in the way, like invading Iraq, cutting taxes for rich people and minimizing disruptions to everyday life for everyone not in the military. This administration keeps reminding us of the high price we all must pay for homeland security, but it always blanches when the bills arrive.

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