By Patricia Lee Sharpe
They’re everywhere among us, doing essential work, sending their kids to school, dreaming of something better, but statistics on undocumented immigrants are pretty fuzzy, which shouldn’t be surprising. Anyone who has entered the U.S. without papers is obviously not going to be jumping up and down and shouting, “Here I am. Come and count me! Come and get me!”
For the most part, in fact, the only undocumented entrants who are likely to come to notice are the small percentage who are stupid enough to run afoul of the law (or of their neighbors) once they’re safely far from the border. As a result, vote-seeking Republican xenophobes can turn the few into a norm and seek electoral support based on fear-mongering.
Conversely, in regard to foreigners who’ve entered the U.S. via a notoriously rigorous U.S. visa system, the statistics must surely be pretty complete, a well-maintained compendium of relevant information. Seems logical in a well-organized government, doesn’t it?
So I assumed, anyway, until a few days ago. That’s when Homeland Security Department officials confessed to Congress that they “don’t know” how many foreign visitors overstay their visas every year.
I had to read that twice. It seemed impossible. It seemed absurd. Getting a U.S. visa often involves the submission of countless documents in preparation for a torturous inquisition conducted by an eagle-eyed, hard-hearted, deeply skeptical official, to say nothing of a long wait, oftentimes under unpleasant conditions. Why would our immigration apparatus put so much effort into screening people wishing to study, travel or work in the U.S., in each case issuing a visa with an explicit expiry date, then turn the lucky entrants loose, to comply or not, according to whim—or artfully concealed original intent? Re the latter, surely by now the whole universe of prospective immigrants must know that once you enter the U.S. on any type of visa the odds are good that you can stay forever, undetected.
Here’s one possible explanation for the sloppy statistics: officialdom has so much faith in the thoroughness of its laborious screening process that what recipients do after they enter hardly matters. Back home? Still here? Who cares? The birth rate being what it is, good people are always welcome. Very touching.
Another explanation has to do with money. Serious exit processing would cost money, and no non-military agency in the U.S. is adequately funded. So, the great disappearing visa-holder scandal may be a consequence of short-sighted cost-cutting by a U.S. government that’s afraid to tax its citizens to pay for essential services responsibly rendered by well-trained professionals. Evidence of this: amongst other blatherings those red-faced officials undergoing a Congressional grilling very strenuously passed the buck. Airlines, they whined, are reluctant to accept the cost of screening departing visitors with any degree of seriousness—as if the job of handling departures belongs with the private sector in the first place. In fact, I’ve always been astonished that airline personnel are the only ones to examine (well, glance at) the travel documents of passengers departing the U.S. on international flights.
Above all, the excuse for losing track of non-immigrant visa holders leaned heavily on the great promise (and the current lack) of a screening system backed up by a storehouse of biometric data. Think cheat-proof—at least, for now—iris scans.
Iris scans. That’s the goal, and it will transform immigration statistics, according to hopeful immigration officials. Everyone will be accounted for.
Maybe so, but requiring iris-scans might not be so hot for tourism. Imagine how privacy-minded European tourists will react when they learn they’ll have to provide unique biodata info in order to visit New York or gaze into the depths of the Grand Canyon. The Taj Mahal or the Forbidden City anyone? For that matter, why should anyone of us trust the insidiously over-reaching U.S. government with such vital personal data? Not in this post Snowden age, anyway. Think of the many purposes to which unprincipled U.S. security officials might, in secrecy, put a collection of iris-scans? I, for one, am not in the least tempted to enable an iris-scan in order to to circumvent the time-consuming, TSA inspection line at the airport—and I stash my passport in a RFID-defeating envelope when I travel.
But wait. Maybe the paranoia is misplaced. Maybe we’re looking at another example of technological overreach, the romantic quest for an application-loaded, state-of-the-art, absolutely “perfect” system of the sort routinely proposed by private sector contractors enjoying cost plus deals fostered by Congressional enablers beholden to said contractors? The more complex the system the bigger the profit.
So let’s step back a bit. Was there really no way to keep track of visa holders before the iris-scanning became the solution du jour? Was it technologically impossible—or just not sexy enough, like maintenance? There’s never enough money, it seems, to maintain roads or bridges or schools in this country. Why? Because maintenance, like housekeeping, is boring. More accurately, it isn’t very lucrative when it comes to attracting big donors for the re-election campaign.
But a solution loaded with bells and whistles and requiring years to develop and install—wow! Get the bidding under way! Never mind that overly complex systems do indeed take forever to develop, are very tricky to operate and have a crash-score well above boring workhorse solutions.
In fact, such a practical, bare bones system could probably (technologically speaking) have been put into place many many years ago. Picture it: Every visa has a number and an expiration date, and each visa (with vital associated data) is entered into a master log when issued. Thereafter, the visa number is noted when its possessor enters the U.S. And when he or she leaves. If the expiry date occurs with no record of extension or departure, a search is initiated. To make this system work, some additional office workers would be required and departures would have to be handled as seriously as entries, but the investment would surely be worthwhile. What we’ve got now is clearly a charade. Hypocrisy does not a healthy government make.
Would this simple system guarantee that no person of ill intent would ever manage to enter the country legally? No. Neither will iris scans, unless every person in the world is scanned and every police record is fed into the system and everyone managing the system is pure-as-the-driven-snow honest. You get the picture. A police state—and police states tend to be run by sadists, not saints.
Iris scan or iris scam, not the kind of country I want to live in.