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Tech advances at US airports yield more busts of visa overstayers exiting the country

Technological innovations recently put in place at U.S. airports are leading authorities to find considerably more people overstaying their visas than even a year ago, immigration officials say.

John Wagner, the deputy executive assistant commissioner of Customs and Border Protection's Office of Field Operations, told techies at the ConnectID conference in Washington this week the agency’s implementation of biometric exit mechanisms like facial recognition and digital fingerprints have allowed them to get better data on visa overstayers.

“We’ve verified over 11,000 overstays so far using the biometric confirmation,” Wagner said about the 2019 fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, 2018.

The 11,000 figure is well above the total 7,000 figure CBP documented leaving the country after overstaying their visas in all of fiscal 2018.

CBP has introduced face-scanning machines at terminal gates at 17 airports nationwide since 2016. All passengers boarding a plane at participating airports must have their face scanned by a camera as the airline attendant scans boarding passes.

Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, who until last month was CBP commissioner, said Tuesday he expects to have a biometric entry/exit system completely installed at all international airports in the U.S. by 2022. Getting to this point has been a long time coming.

Congress mandated DHS more than a decade earlier to create an electronic system to track immigrants entering the U.S. on a visa and again when they leave.

Immigrants who remain in the U.S. after their visas expire are considered illegally present. The number of new visa overstayers in fiscal 2018 — 580,000 — was greater than the number of people who illegally crossed any of the country’s physical borders — 404,000.

Wagner said biometric information — statistical data on biological information — is first taken from immigrants arriving in the country. A passenger going through immigration checks will have his or her 10 fingerprints taken by a CBP officer. Those prints go into his or her profile and are crosschecked against a national criminal database.

Because airports share passenger lists with CBP and the Transportation Security Agency, the government already knows who to expect and when to expect them. Biometric data makes it easier to track who has and has not left the country, as well as keep personal information from being spoken aloud for others to hear.

The downside and biggest public complaint is the invasion of privacy and how the data will be stored and used. Wagner said DHS has the legal high ground.

“We have a responsibility to identify who’s who. We have a responsibility to identify whether someone is a U.S. citizen or not a U.S. citizen,” he said. “The law requires you as a U.S. citizen to fly with a U.S. passport so we can use these authorities to take a picture of a U.S. citizen, confirm who they are, confirm all of that biographical vetting we’ve done … does in fact belong to the person standing in front of us.”

The passengers photo — taken and scanned against the passport image on record — is immediately discarded, Wagner said.

Facial recognition technology has also led CBP to uncover five incidents where a person attempting to enter the U.S. was using a fake or borrowed passport, he said.