The Homeland Security Department has lost track of more than 1 million people who it knows arrived in the U.S. but who it cannot prove left the country, according to an audit Tuesday that also found the department probably won’t meet its own goals for deploying an entry-exit system.
The findings were revealed as Congress debates an immigration bill, and the Government Accountability Office’s report could throw up another hurdle because lawmakers in the House and Senate have said that any final deal must include a workable system to track entries and exits and cut down on so-called visa overstays.
The government does track arrivals, but is years overdue in setting up a system to track departures—a goal set in a 1996 immigration law and reaffirmed in 2004, but which has eluded Republican and Democratic administrations.
“DHS has not yet fulfilled the 2004 statutory requirement to implement a biometric exit capability, but has planning efforts under way to report to Congress in time for the fiscal year 2016 budget cycle on the costs and benefits of such a capability at airports and seaports,” GAO investigators wrote.
Outside business groups and Republican donors are trying to breathe life into the push for getting an immigration bill through Congress this year.
Nearly 100 top donors and former party officials signed a letter Tuesday pleading with House Republicans to pass a bill legalizing illegal immigrants, saying it could open the door to earning immigrants’ political support.
The donor letter was sent the same day that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and 400 other businesses and umbrella groups fired off a letter to House leaders of both parties, urging them to pass something—though the business leaders did not specifically call for legalizing illegal immigrants.
Under current law, the government is supposed to be developing a system to check every visitor’s entry and departure from the country, using biometric identifiers such as fingerprints. The system is supposed to apply to air, land and sea ports of entry.
But members of both parties have said that is a giant task. The Senate bill waters down those requirements, saying only that there must be a biographic-based system, which means using a photo, and that it be limited to air and sea ports.
The GAO said most of the overstays came by airplane, but 32 percent came through land ports of entry, and 4 percent came by sea. The average length of overstay was 2.7 years.
The Congressional Budget Office, which analyzed the Senate bill, said it will cut out about half of all illegal immigration. CBO said stiffer border security will limit those crossing the border illegally but that the system would boost the chances for illegal immigrants to come to the U.S. under new guest-worker programs and stay beyond their visas.
The executive branch is supposed to report annually to Congress on how many people have overstayed their visas but has failed to do so for the past two decades, saying the information isn’t reliable enough.
The total of 1 million potential overstays in the country is an improvement from two years ago, when the GAO found Homeland Security had lost track of 1.6 million people.