Biometrics testing to begin soon at U.S.-Mexico border

Aiming to crack down on foreigners who remain in the country with expired visas, the federal government is turning to biometrics — and Otay Mesa is slated to be a key test site. The “Pedestrian Border Experiment,” expected to launch this year, will focus on non-U.S. citizens who leave the United States on foot through Otay Mesa. It will involve the first use of facial and iris scans on the country’s southern border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Prompting the experiment is an effort by U.S. authorities to track nonimmigrant visa holders who enter the United States legally but remain in the country after the permits have expired. A 2006 study by the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that visa overstays comprise 40 to 50 percent of the country’s unauthorized population.

The program responds to nearly two decades of congressional pressure on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to track exits as well as entries. A 1996 law imposed penalties on those who overstay their visas, including bans on re-entering the country. But enforcing the law has been difficult, without some method of certifying whether a visa holder has left before his or her visa expired.

While the CBP conducts southbound checks at the Mexican border, these usually have involved searches of vehicles for weapons, bulk cash and other contraband, and pedestrians walking into Mexico at Otay Mesa are not currently the subject of much scrutiny — either by the U.S. or Mexican governments.

The test, slated to take place over a two-month period, is expected to involve a sizable number of crossers: CBP counted about 183,000 northbound pedestrians at Otay Mesa in June, or more than 6,000 a day. Roughly the same number cross southbound, though there is no official count. The experiment comes amid a mounting national debate over the use of biometrics by government agencies, a practice that has stirred fears over the potential for abuse. The experiment has also raised concerns over the possibility of long southbound pedestrian lines at Otay Mesa.