DHS seeks way ahead for US-VISIT

The Homeland Security Department is caught between a congressional mandate and an industry struggling financially as it moves ahead with the exit portion of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program.

The period for public comment on the department’s plan to have airlines collect biometric information on foreign travelers as they leave the country ended today. Meanwhile, questions remain about how DHS will satisfy lawmakers’ requirements.

DHS’ proposed rule has spurred criticism from the industry’s lobbying groups, which argue that airlines do not have the money — estimated at billions of dollars in the coming decade — or the information technology infrastructure to meet the requirements. They have urged DHS to scrap its plan to put the industry in charge of the exit portion of the program.

Robert Mocny, US-VISIT director at DHS, said today that under federal rules, the department could implement the program the way it was proposed, modify it, or scrap it altogether and replace it with something else. All of those options are still on the table, he added. He also said the rule-making process opened a dialog, but he declined to comment on the nature of the feedback DHS has received.

Airport authorities, airline lobby groups, and a diplomat representing the interests of 34 countries' embassies and the European Commission pressed DHS officials at a public hearing June 13 to rethink their plan of putting airlines in charge of the process.

In a statement today, James May, president of the Air Transport Association of America, called the rule-making proceeding “purely and simply against the law” and indefensible.

The department is under pressure to implement the exit portion of US-VISIT by June 2009 or face the possibility of not being able to extend the Visa Waiver Program's privileges to new countries. DHS has signed several memoranda of understanding in recent months with countries interested in joining the program, which lets travelers from designated countries visit the United States without a visa.

“Congress [is] very insistent that until you have a biometric exit you cannot expand the Visa Waiver Program,” Mocny said.

DHS is hoping to publish a final rule for the exit portion of US-VISIT this fall, Mocny said. “We are trying to get this final rule published so that it’s not left up to the next administration to have to deal with,” he added.

For years, DHS has been collecting fingerprints on foreign travelers as they enter the country. The department is in the process of expanding its collection efforts from two fingerprints to 10 fingerprints per traveler.

Through the US-VISIT exit program, DHS would use the biometric data collected by the airlines to create an exit record and verify the identity of the traveler against data stored in DHS’ Automated Biometric Identification System and Arrival and Departure Information System. The airlines would send the biometric data in a message, formatted in Extensible Markup Language, that would contain a biometric image along with biographical data such as the person's first and last names, date of birth, and the date and time the fingerprints were taken.

Mocny said taking 10 prints will correspond well with the FBI’s Next Generation Identification system, an update to the agency’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System repository of fingerprints related to law enforcement investigations.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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