WASHINGTON (CN) - Homeland Security faced a Senate reckoning on Wednesday over its failure to implement a biometric tracking system for nonimmigrant departures from the United States.
Congress has required the implementation of an automated entry and exit system since 1996, and added a biometric requirement in 2004. Though Homeland Security has run several pilot programs beginning in 2007, it has yet to implement a universal system.
Rebecca Gambler with the Government Accountability Office told those assembled at the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing about the "challenges" confronting the agency in terms of determining how best to collect biometric data - including fingerprints, facial recognition and iris scanning - at the nation's land, air and sea ports.
John Wagner with U.S. Customs and Border Protection said his office began using hand-held mobile fingerprint collection devices at 10 major U.S. airports last year.
Discussing the positive preliminary results, Wagner said fingerprint collections allowed the agency to close out "a few" records it would not have caught with just biographic data, like names and passport numbers.
Wagner said Customs and Border Protection ran a pilot at Dulles International Airport in Virginia last spring and just launched a similar program at New York's JFK Airport.
Running facial comparisons on upwards of 5,000 travelers, the office determined that such analysis can be done accurately, Wagner said.
The hearing of Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest came just a day after the Department of Homeland Security issued a report on visa overstays during 2015, offering numbers lawmakers demanded
last month in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks.
The new report
finds that slightly more than 1 percent of the 45 million nonimmigrant tourist and business visitors in 2015 overstayed their visas - that's more than 500,000 individuals - but continuing departures bring that number down toward 400,000, officials say.
Travelers from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen and Syria - a population segment singled out by several lawmakers - constitute about 3,600 of these visa-overstay estimates.
The numbers do not include certain categories of nonimmigrant travelers, however, including students and temporary workers. Because of challenges in collecting biometric data at land ports of entry, the report did not take this category of traveler into account either.
Seizing on these holes, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., quoted an estimate that nearly 40 percent of those unlawfully present in the United States overstayed their visas after a lawful entry.
"This nation, despite clear law, makes no attempt to identify, locate or find these people," Sessions said. "Our executive branch is on strike against the will of the American people, and the requirements of Congress," he added.
Wagner noted that collecting biometric information upon departure would "only help a little" when it comes to visa overstays.
The bigger problem, he said, is that the U.S. lacks the infrastructure to easily implement a biometric exit system without disrupting travel flows.
"Our ports of entry were not built for exit processing," Wagner said. "Unlike for arrivals, there's no exclusive and dedicated space for departure controls."
Collecting biometric data from outbound passengers too soon in the departure process - for example at the check-in counter or at security checkpoints - would not ensure that these people actually left the country, Wagner added.
As of now, Customs and Border Protection relies heavily on passenger departure manifests provided by airlines to confirm whether a person has actually boarded a plane and left the United States. Wagner said these manifests are accurate.
Discussing past failures at implementing an exit system, Wagner said these projects were done in isolation or built from scratch, rather than building on existing frameworks.
Additionally, some technology, like mobile fingerprint devices, are expensive and will only work at smaller to midsize airports, he said.
The testimony fell largely on deaf ears. Some in skeptical subcommittee said the agency was making excuses, though Sessions acknowledged that the issue shows a need for more personnel and thus additional funding.
A lack of clear direction is also to blame, the senator added.
"Under the policies of this administration, overstaying a visa does not result in deportation," Sessions said. "This is the very essence of open borders. Anyone can come in, no one has to leave."
Gambler with the Government Accountability Office meanwhile found a silver lining in Homeland Security's implementation of pilot programs.
"I think it's really important for DHS to have some of these kind of basic building blocks in place," she added, noting that a game plan will ensure that money is being spent "efficiently and effectively."
Sessions called Gambler's comments about the agency "generous."
The senator's remark that a biometric exit system will not overburden the airlines hinted that the industry has been the primary detractor for its implementation.
Sessions urged the agency to put national interests first.
"This issue is more than whether you're a terrorist," Sessions said.
Americans have been promised a lawful and enforceable immigration system but their confidence has been eroded - they believe their jobs and hospitals are at stake, he said.
Congress earmarked $2 billion for Homeland Security to implement a biometric exit system as part of the omnibus spending bill.
"You've got some extra money now, Mr. Wagner," Sessions said, urging him to spend it wisely.