The United States knows when visitors carrying visas enter the country, but it has no idea when, or if, most of those people leave.
Congress ordered that key flaw in the immigration system to be fixed as far back as 1996 – in part because as many as 100,000 people overstay their visas annually and join the ranks of undocumented workers. But the 9/11 attacks gave the request new impetus: The 9/11 commission in 2004 recommended that the loophole be closed, and the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act mandated that it be done "as expeditiously as possible."
By the end of this year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) expects to have a system in place to track people who leave by air or by sea. But it has decided to abandon its efforts to track the exits of foreigners who depart through the nation's border checkpoints on land.
Tuesday, top DHS officials will go before the Senate Judiciary Committee to explain the department's rationale.
"Land presents somewhat of a challenge," says the DHS official who confirmed that the land exit program was being suspended. "We're still looking into doing it at some point in time; it might be a number of years."
The problem, according to DHS, is that the technology doesn't yet exist to create an entry/exit program for people who cross by land – at least not without causing huge traffic delays that would disrupt commerce and daily life in border towns.
Critics say the real problem is a lack of political will and confused priorities. They charge that DHS has set the technical bar too high – for instance, requiring the system to be able to check people's exit from the country while they're driving by at 50 miles per hour.