U.S. border security not all about walls

(This editorial is reprinted from USA Today, where it was first published.)

When people talk about border security, they’re usually thinking fences, walls and patrol agents to keep people out. But that’s only half the battle.

The rest is making certain that foreign visitors who enter the United States legally leave when they’re supposed to.

As many as 45 percent of the nation’s illegal immigrants — perhaps 5 million people — entered the United States legally but failed to leave. They just melted into the population.

That’s what four of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers did. Ringleader Mohamed Atta not only arrived legally and “overstayed” his visa, he also left and was allowed to come in yet again, despite having violated immigration laws.

Everyone who knows anything about immigration was well aware of the problem long before Sept. 11, 2001. In 1996, Congress ordered immigration officials to fix it. With added urgency after 9/11, Congress twice passed mandates for a sophisticated “biometric system” to take digital photos and fingerprints of foreign visitors at all ports of entry and track those visitors when they leave — or more to the point, know who has failed to leave.

But recordkeeping remains so haphazard that the government can’t say with certainty how many overstayers there are. To do the job — with or without biometrics — the Department of Homeland Security needs three things: a system to track those who leave, a way to compare the lists to determine who hasn’t left, and enough agents and judges to go after those who remain illegally.

Almost a dozen years after 9/11, the agency has just one-third of the equation down pat — taking photos and fingerprints of those entering the country. At best, the rest is still a work in progress.

At airports, the agency says it has found a reasonable solution, checking passenger lists on departing flights against the entry lists to determine who has potentially overstayed. In testimony prepared for a Senate hearing this month, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the agency refers leads to enforcement authorities “based on national security and public safety priorities.” Good.

Such a program should give the agency a handle on how many visitors are overstaying visas and which countries are the worst offenders. The agency had promised to provide that data to interested senators last summer. At the hearing, Napolitano said it won’t be available until the end of 2013. It’s tough to have confidence in a tracking system when the Department of Homeland Security can’t even come up with a count of people tracked.

The situation looks even bleaker at the nation’s borders, where tens of millions of temporary visitors come and go each year. There is no automated system to check who leaves.

All this remains a national security problem. Now, it could become yet another barrier to comprehensive immigration reform — which has its best shot at passage in years. Any solution that creates a path to citizenship for people illegally in the country will have to deter a new buildup of illegal immigrants hoping for the same treatment. It won’t be enough to lock the rear door if millions of immigrants are streaming through the front.

That’s not likely to prove either cheap or easy. A full biometric system plus immigration agents plus court personnel would cost tens of billions of dollars that the government doesn’t have. But if this year’s immigration reform is to prove more effective and durable than those of the past, this would be a good time to face up to the costs.

More public attention to those issues would be a good starting point. All the hyperventilating about fences and weak border security misses half the problem.