By Jeff Gorsky

With the presidential campaign in full swing, few issues are generating more attention than immigration reform.  In particular, on the Republican side, much is heard about the need for border security.  Donald Trump began his rise to the top of the polls by calling for the creation of a wall on the border, a wall he states will cost eight billion dollars (a figure that has been disputed by many as too low).  Ted Cruz quickly outlined his own plans to create fencing all across the Southern border.

Both plans have proved to be popular with GOP voters.  But both plans are based on a mistaken and simplistic premise: that building an enormous and very expensive wall on our southern border with Mexico will prevent illegal immigration and significantly bolster our national security.  In fact, the wall represents an outdated idea of national borders, and building it will only address—at great expense– a small portion of today’s international immigration.

In the twenty-first century, the border between the United States and the rest of the world is not limited to the lines on a map between the U.S. and its neighbors.  The border is every international airport in the United States, as well as every U.S. visa counter all over the world screening potential visa applicants.  This border is enormous and very busy: there were seventy-five-million international visitors to the U.S. in 2015 alone.

This travel is vital to the U.S. economy.  International visitors are expected to spend over 220 billion dollars in the U.S. this year alone. They are essential to U.S. international trade, they enable companies to invest in the U.S., and all this travel bolsters good ties to the rest of the world and promotes cultural exchange.

While this travel is critical to our economic and national interests, it does present risks.  But the risks are not principally from our southern border.  There is no evidence that any terrorist act in the U.S. has been committed by someone who crossed the southern border illegally.

Fortunately, Congress and the administrations of both President Bush and Obama have recognized that the true nature of our borders go beyond the line between U.S. and Mexico.  Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the government has expended enormous resources to help control this extended border.

They have done this in part by taking steps to push the border out.  This means extensive screening of travelers before they leave their home countries.  For example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) established the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) which requires screening of visa exempt travelers before they can board a plane.   Congress required and the government implemented expanded biometric fingerprint collection for travelers, and the State Department has also been a leader in the use of facial recognition technology.  The National Counterterrorism Center and other agencies have significantly expanded the quality of security screening.   The result is a virtual wall, with a much greater reach and sophisticated screening ability than a physical fence.

Smarter border security will also address the thousands of immigrants who enter legally each year and then overstay their authorized admission, a problem left untouched by a border wall.  The FY 2015 DHS Appropriations Act provided $9.9 million for a new reporting environment for the Arrival and Departure Information System, which will allow the federal government to track entry/exit and overstay data on a monthly or weekly basis, as needed.  DHS is in the process of testing several new exit control systems, and technological improvements should allow in the near future for significantly more effective use of exit data to assist in immigration security and control.

Having spent many years at the State Department in the Visa Office, I know that there are legitimate questions about immigration reform to be asked; unfortunately, they aren’t the ones being asked in the GOP campaign.  Instead, GOP presidential candidates have fallen back on a sound bite – “build the wall” – and have refrained from presenting any 21st Century solutions to this modern challenge.  A real policy debate over immigration and security must move beyond a border wall and candidates should be asked to address how they will implement an entry-exit tracking system and improve security screening at consulates and airports outside of the United States.

Jeff Gorsky is Senior Counsel at Berry, Appleman & Leiden LLP.  He previously served as a senior lawyer in the Visa Office at the Department of State.

Click here to view Jeff Gorsky’s article that was published in The Hill.

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