Tracking Immigrants Like FedEx Packages Doesn't Actually Make A Lot Of Sense

Chris Christie gets points for novelty, but not practicality.
CNBC via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) wants to track anyone who enters the country from the moment they receive their visa, just like a FedEx package. Moreover, he would bring in Fred Smith, the founder of the international shipping company, to teach government bureaucrats how the job ought to be done.

"We need to have a system that tracks you from the moment you come in," the hawkish presidential candidate said at a Saturday campaign event. "And then when your time is up... then we go get you, tap you on the shoulder and say, 'Excuse me, thanks for coming, time to go.'" (Whether he knew it or not, Christie was echoing a very similar proposal from Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Virginia Republican who raised the idea last year while still a state delegate.)

What does FedEx think about this proposal? The company has officially declined to comment, noting only that it uses bar-code technology and unique tracking numbers to scan each package an average of 13 times between drop-off and delivery.

According to a shipping industry expert, however, tracking immigrants like packages would make little sense. Even if it could somehow be implemented on a large scale, it would raise thorny questions about ethics and privacy.

“I actually think it’s not very practical at all," said Dan Gilmore, editor of Supply Chain Digest, a website focused on supply-chain management and logistics.

Gilmore said that FedEx operates a largely controlled system, with geographically defined entry and exit points that allow the company and its customers to precisely track the location of packages using automatic bar codes on every box.

Locating people in real time would prove substantially more difficult. A human being, for example, might object to wearing a bracelet that contains a bar code or a tracking chip, and might intentionally discard or disable it. Even if such a chip were implanted under the skin, a person could find a way to damage it.

Radio-frequency identification technology has been used to track human beings, albeit in controlled environments. Some amusement parks dispense tickets with RFID chips, allowing parents to locate their children if they get separated. Similarly, certain jails have used RFID chips to keep track of prisoners on the grounds. And in a move to please stats-obsessed fans, the NFL announced earlier this month that it will be embedding the tracking technology in its shoulder pads in order to record the speed, distance and direction traveled of every player in the league.

Newer U.S. passports also contain RFID chips. However, these chips do not permit the real-time tracking of individuals, and are only used by authorities to record when a person has arrived at a port of entry.

Gilmore said that in theory, immigrants with U.S. visas could be given a card with such a tracking chip. But even then, he said, it would be next to impossible to ensure that they would use the card to check in at designated touchpoints -- at grocery stores, hotels or parks, for example.

"If you could have the immigrant go once a day to scan himself," Gilmore said, "you would get a bit more visibility. But the notion that you could track a person like a FedEx package is just not right. No offense to Mr. Christie."

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