No exit

Trouble fielding a system to track foreign visitors' departures illustrates the complicated policy picture homeland security has become

What’s in a name? The answer to that classic question is as relevant in today’s national security and immigration policy debates as it was for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

The terrorist attacks of 2001 involved exploitation of the country’s border security and immigration controls. Since then, the government has sought to develop a comprehensive system to track foreign nationals’ pre-entry, entry, status and exit from the United States using biographical information and biometrics to verify identity.

A fingerprint-based entry program is now in place, but the effort to field a companion biometric exit system to close the loop on visitor tracking has proved more difficult, with disputes in government and with private industry flaring over funding and who would be responsible for administering key parts of the system.

The resulting delays mean that the Homeland Security Department probably will temporarily lose additional discretionary authority Congress gave the department in 2007. The authority allows DHS to expand the Visa Waiver Program to certain additional countries. Officials say the program is a valuable way for the United States to increase economic, social and security collaboration with its allies.

An ambitious task
The exit system will fold into the main effort to strengthen the country’s border security and immigration controls: the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program, which in its current form is already making a difference, government officials say.

“Certainly by adding biometrics to the entry portion, we have dramatically increased the security of the United States,” said Robert Mocny, director of the US-VISIT program at DHS. “By basically eliminating visa fraud and passport fraud by linking biometrics, I would argue we have dramatically improved the process and made it more efficient, too.”

Integrating biometric indicators into the exit process is an important next step to enhance the system’s value, said Richard Norton, executive vice president of the National Biometric Security Project who previously held leadership positions at the now-dissolved Immigration and Naturalization Service.

“Biometrics establish that link that makes sure that the person who acquired the biometric on entry is the person who is leaving — it’s not somebody who has been given somebody else’s passport,” Norton said.

In April, the Bush administration released a proposal for how the US-VISIT biometric exit program for airports and seaports would work. However, the proposal gave airlines the responsibility for collecting biometric data at airports, and the industry, some foreign governments and some lawmakers objected. The proposal has since been put on hold.

The administration estimated it would cost the airlines $3 billion to implement the program and make the necessary upgrades to their information technology systems. Industry representatives argued that the total price would be closer to $12 billion and said such costs were especially onerous given the current poor economic climate.

Steve Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said much of the opposition to the plan stemmed from the belief that DHS officials had underestimated the complexity of the program and the changes it would require of the airlines’ operational procedures and technology and communications systems. He said others voiced concerns about placing aspects of what should be an inherently governmental activity — border security — into private-sector hands.

Mocny said government officials believed that because the airlines already pay for the entry portion of the program through passenger fees, they could do the same for processing airline travelers as the travelers exit the country. Mocny also said the idea behi d the plan is that, unlike in some countries, U.S. airports do not have government-operated departure control booths. Instead, the airlines have contact with departing passengers.

The airlines argued that they already collect enough information and DHS has not adequately coordinated the various data-collection tasks it has required of the airlines in recent years. Ken Dunlap, IATA’s director of security for North America, said he was hopeful that cooperation will improve under a new administration.

Nathan Sales, who was DHS’ deputy assistant secretary for policy development from 2006 to 2007 and led efforts to expand the Visa Waiver Program, said both sides have a point.

“DHS says, ‘Look, our airports are configured this way. We have to use existing processes and existing physical plans. The airlines control that, so we should use that.’ Understandable,” said Sales, now a law professor at George Mason University. “The airlines — also understandably — say, ‘This is a border security function and a responsibility of the government. We shouldn’t be doing the government’s work for it, and not only that…our industry is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. We can’t afford to absorb $3 billion or $12 billion worth of additional costs.’”

In the end, Congress sided with the airlines. As part of DHS’ fiscal 2009 budget, lawmakers stipulated that before the departments can spend any new money on the program, it must conduct at least two tests to determine if the airlines or the government should collect departing passengers’ biometric data. The U.S. airlines’ largest trade group, the Air Transport Association, has agreed to participate in the tests, but DHS will pick up the tab.

Biometrics and politics
The tests should allow DHS to move beyond the current logjam over who collects departing passengers’ data, but the time needed to plan and conduct them means the department probably will not meet a June 30, 2009, deadline for deploying the exit system. That in turn means DHS might lose, if only temporarily, some authority to expand the Visa Waiver Program.

The program allows citizens of authorized countries — those whose refusal rate for nonimmigrant visas is below 3 percent — to travel to the United States for as long as 90 days without obtaining a visa. In 2007, Congress gave DHS the authority to accept countries into the program whose rejection rate was more than 3 percent, but less than 10 percent.

Many lawmakers consider the exit system to be a critical part of ensuring that the Visa Waiver Program is secure. Some members of Congress opposed the program’s expansion last month to include seven additional countries.

In a statement, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called the Visa Waiver Program the country’s Achilles’ heel and said she planned to introduce legislation in the next congressional session aimed at strengthening the program’s security.

“We have worked to mitigate the risks of the Visa Waiver Program for years,” she wrote in an October letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff co-signed by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). “A critical component to protecting our nation and its people is a fully operational biometric exit system at our ports of entry.”

However, Sales said there is policy disagreement over whether taking somebody’s fingerprints adds a sufficient degree of reliability to justify the additional costs.

Despite the delays, Mocny said, he remains optimistic that an exit system will be deployed at airports. He said he is hopeful the tests will take place in the spring and conclude in time to influence funding for fiscal 2010.

“What [the exit system] will do is strengthen the immigration portion,” he said. “It will allow us to now give good, ha d statistics to Congress about how many people have overstayed their visas. It will give obviously Immigration and Customs Enforcement harder data to go and find these people.”

The steps that come after deployment of the exit system at airports are not going to be any easier. Mocny’s office is finishing a report for policy-makers that will outline the challenges associated with expanding the system to the country’s northern and southern land borders.

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