The NYT has just woken up to the debate over tracking travelers' departure from the US. The story highlighting the lack of exit monitoring builds on the arrest of a Jordanian overstay who was plotting the bombing of a Dallas skyscrapter. It's a troubling story:
Mr. Smadi’s arrest on Sept. 24 for the attempted bombing was not his first encounter with American law enforcement. Two weeks earlier, a sheriff’s deputy in Ellis County, Tex., pulled him over for a broken tail light just north of the town of Italy, then arrested him for driving without a license or insurance.
When the deputy checked his identity, Mr. Smadi’s name showed up on a watch list by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which was already investigating him. But the background check turned up no immigration record. The deputy called the F.B.I. and was told there was no outstanding arrest warrant for Mr. Smadi. So on the evening of Sept. 11, Mr. Smadi paid a $550 fine and walked out of the county jail.
I'm stll not persuaded that this makes a good argument for a large-scale exit monitoring program, though. Right now, we've got a system that identifies 92.5% of all departures. So we're trying to determine what happened to the other 7.5%. Some are overstays, others left on time but the leakiness of our exit controls made it impossible to figure that out. So, to decide whether we should build an exit monitoring system, all we need to know is how much a new system will improve the accuracy of the current system, and how much that will cost. I don't know (probably no one does) but I doubt the cost-benefits ratio is good, especially when compared to more targeted approaches to the problem identified in Smadi's case.
Here are the two questions we ought to ask about the Smadi case before we ramp up an exit monitoring system (or at least at the land border; it's easier to justify, and run, an exit system for airport departures):
1. We know that ICE gets records from which it can identify the 7.5% of possible overstays. Smadi was one of them. Why didn't ICE go looking for Smadi when he showed up as an overstay? Is it that ICE isn't worried about nineteen-year-old unaccompanied males from Jordan who overstay any more? Or is it that the relevant ICE office coesn't have enough staff even to look for high-risk overstays? If the answer to one of those questions is yes, then either ICE's program for pursuing overstays needs to be overhauled or it needs more resources.
2. Why didn't Ellis County know Smadi was an immigration violator? My guess is that Ellis County didn't know because ICE doesn't want it to know -- that ICE still hasn't made its immigration records available to local law enforcement. Why not? Probably because it's afraid that giving local law enforcement agencies access to immigration records means that the agencies will start running all the people they arrest through DHS's computers. The agencies will inevitably find that some of the suspects are illegal immigrants. Then they will ask ICE to come pick the suspects up and will complain bitterly when ICE says it doesn't have the resources, that it can't pick up everyone. Which will be followed by a local story claiming that ICE isn't doing its job.
At the end of the day, that's an understandable bit of bureaucratic self-protection. But preventing people from seeing the problem isn't the same as solving the problem. Worse, as in the Smadi case, it could keep ICE from finding out about high-risk illegal immigrants.
There's a solution to this problem too. DHS should share its immigration data with any state that agrees to share fingerprints and criminal records with all of DHS. Neither of those things happens today, and the two facts are equally shocking, considering how much DHS has invested in fingerprint technology.
Well, you might ask, how does DHS get access to fingerprint and criminal records today? The answer is that DHS relies on the FBI, which collects the fingerprints and criminal records, for free, from state and local governments. But the FBI charges DHS tens of millions of dollars (maybe more than $100 million; I haven't checked recently) for access to them, claiming that the state and local officials have refused to share these records outside a criminal context. So DHS should go to the source, trade its valuable immigration information for valuable information that the locals have and that DHS needs to administer the immigration law.
Presto, we eliminate the middleman. And we eliminate two embarrassing information sharing failures.
The only downside is that ICE will occasionally face a bad story about how it refuses to pick up every illegal immigrant arrested by local authorities. That's not the end of the world. ICE should say without embarrassment that it would be glad to do that if Congress gave it the money, and that, without the money, it has to set priorities.
In fact, legislation requiring this could be called "The Truth in Immigration Enforcement Act."