Skip to Content

Eye Scans Could Deter As Many Illegal Immigrants to the U.S. As a Border Wall

17 Dec

The U.S. is test­ing what could be a power­ful new de­terrent against il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion.

Between 40 to 50 per­cent of people il­leg­ally liv­ing in the U.S.—as many as 6 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.)

Con­gress man­dated that cus­toms of­fi­cials de­vel­op an exit-data-col­lec­tion sys­tem 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 U.S. 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 de­tails.

The new in­form­a­tion could also lead to changes in the U.S. ’s im­mig­ra­tion en­force­ment policies, which now fo­cus heav­ily on patrolling the south­ern bor­der.

“When you look at how we tar­get it, you would think the en­tire prob­lem is at the bor­der between the ports of entry,” as op­posed to people com­ing in­to the coun­try leg­ally and then over­stay­ing their visas, said Marc Rosen­blum, deputy dir­ect­or of the U.S. Im­mig­ra­tion Policy Pro­gram at the Mi­gra­tion Policy In­sti­tute.

But be­ing able to track every­one is still a long way away, he adds. The ex­per­i­ment in Otay Mesa only in­volves ped­es­tri­ans. Scan­ning vis­it­ors trav­el­ing by car without worsen­ing the already long lines at bor­der cross­ings will be harder. Of­fi­cials are also test­ing wheth­er eye-scan­ning tech­no­logy, which is usu­ally used in­doors, will work out­side.