As the full U.S. Senate starts debating the byproduct of the Judiciary Committee’s bipartisan attempt to overhaul our country’s immigration system, one maxim should guide its work: do no harm.

Lawmakers should be especially sensitive to calls to install an exit control system at our land border crossings with Canada and Mexico. At first blush, a system to record departures just as we do entrances seems like a no-brainer, but the implementation of such a checkout system is fraught with pitfalls.

With estimates that up to 40 percent of the 11-12 million undocumented immigrants in the country are here because they overstayed their visa, Americans have every right to be frustrated. While devoting scarce resources to some sort of internal tracking system would rightly be rejected by Americans and foreign visitors, developing a system to ensure our visitors leave when they are supposed to is not too much to ask.

In its report accompanying the comprehensive immigration reform bill, the Senate Judiciary Committee found that such a system - the United States Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology, or US-VISIT - has been stymied over the past 10 years to come online fully due to myriad challenges relating to infrastructure, technology and cost.

While devoting scarce resources to some sort of internal tracking system would rightly be rejected by Americans and foreign visitors, developing a system to ensure our visitors leave when they are supposed to is not too much to ask.

- Nelson Balido

There are over 600,000 crossings per day at our southern ports, and merchants and local and state governments are doing everything they can to attract more visitors to shop in our stores, eat in our restaurants and stay in our hotels. Yet the U.S. government has spent billions on border security between these hubs of economic activity, treating ports as more of an afterthought than a priority. 

The hours-long waits to enter the U.S. provide easy examples of a government that has spent more time cracking down on illegal crossings rather than encouraging legal ones. In a post-9/11 world, that’s understandable. But it’s also a sign that unless we want to replicate the same inefficient entry process in the exit environment, we’re poorly equipped to create a checkout system that won’t choke border communities and create yet another disincentive for cross-border travelers.

There are some signs, however, that policymakers are making progress on the exit control conundrum. The U.S. and Canada, as part of their Beyond the Border agreement, later this month will begin the second phase of their joint Entry/Exit Information System pilot program.

Under the information sharing program, an arrival by land in one country will constitute an exit from the other country. The first phase, which only reconciled the crossings of travelers who were neither U.S. nor Canadian citizens, was deemed a big success by both countries.

The Canadian experiment shows that with creative thinking we can craft an immigration system on the Mexican border that strengthens our border controls without negatively affecting our nation’s economic health, and for that we needs Mexico’s help. That means installing a process of coming and going through our international ports without stemming the tide of legal visitors who inject billions into our economy every year and who are critical to the economic wellbeing of so many Americans. According to the U.S. Travel Association, we actually have a tourism trade surplus, a rare bright spot in an otherwise muddy financial outlook.

The stakes are high in the exit control challenge, and no question it has to be implemented. The American people and the politicians they elect are demanding to know who we’ve let into the country and whether they’ve left. But for border communities who have already seen their economies suffer due to a broken entry system, failure could prove catastrophic.

Nelson Balido is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.  Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido

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