The U.S. is testing what could be a powerful new deterrent against illegal immigration.
Between 40% and 50% of the people illegally living in the U.S.—as many as six million people, according to an estimate by the Pew Research Center—didn’t sneak in, but entered legally, and then overstayed their visas. Up to now, U.S. border officials have had no way of knowing who overstays, because while they check everyone who comes into the country legally, they don’t keep a record of who leaves by land for Mexico. (On the northern border, Canada shares information about foreigners leaving the U.S..)
The U.S. Congress mandated that customs officials develop an exit-data collection system (pdf, page 2) in 1996, but they have failed so far due to the steep cost and the potential for delays at the border.
But starting Dec. 10, travelers entering the US by foot through the Otay Mesa crossing in San Diego have had to undergo eye scans. Starting in February, foreigners headed to Mexico will also be scanned. It’s a trial program that will last for up to six months, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. If the program were extended throughout the border, the U.S. would know exactly who those overstayers are.
That wouldn’t necessarily mean that the U.S. would use that information to go after them—but it could. Many immigrants already live in fear of being deported, even as they remain largely anonymous. That fear might grow unbearable if they know the government has their names and other personal…