US-VISIT tests new approaches to exit system

The Homeland Security Department will start testing two methods for electronically collecting and transmitting biometric data on non-citizens as they leave the United States through airports. Both sets of tests will begin May 28, and DHS agencies — not the airlines — will collect the data.

The tests at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport are scheduled to last 35 days. They will evaluate two scenarios for collecting data and establishing an exit system under the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program. In Atlanta, Transportation Security Administration officers will collect the biometric information at agency checkpoints, while in Detroit, Customs and Border Protection officers will gather the data at boarding gates.

US-VISIT’s fingerprint-based entry program for non-U.S. citizens coming to the United States has been around since 2004. However, fielding a companion biometric exit system has proven difficult. The government and industry have disagreed over how to fund the program and which organizations would be responsible for administering key parts of the system.

The airlines opposed a rule the Bush administration proposed in April 2008 that would have made them responsible for collecting the data. At the time, the government estimated that it would cost the airlines $3 billion to implement the program and make the necessary upgrades to their information technology systems. Industry representatives said the total cost would be closer to $12 billion.

Last year, Congress required DHS to conduct at least two pilot programs to test different scenarios: one in which CBP collects the data at airport gates and one in which the airlines collect and transmit the data.

Robert Mocny, director of the US-VISIT program at DHS, said the airlines have been unwilling to participate in a pilot program for the exit system. He said DHS offered to pay for such a program, but neither Congress nor his office could compel the airlines to take part in the tests. The US-VISIT office has worked with the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the Air Transport Association and individual airlines, he added.

The airlines “just elected to not participate, so that being the case, we said, ‘We’ve got to move forward with the other pilots so let’s do the CBP and the TSA version, and if for some reason the airlines want to join later on, fine, we’ll do that, but it’s doubtful,'" Mocny said.

Meanwhile, representatives for IATA said that although they regularly deal with the US-VISIT office, the organization hadn’t been asked to help create a test exit program that would involve airlines collecting the data.

“We look forward to hearing from the US-VISIT office and DHS, we look forward to hearing about their plans for the third pilot involving an airline, and we stand by willing to consult and advise,” said Steve Lott, a spokesman for IATA.

Mocny said that although it’s conceivable the scenarios in Atlanta and Detroit will prove unworkable, officials think they have a good approach for the exit system.

It’s likely that biometric collection will end up as a government activity, Mocny said. However, having the airlines collect the data remains an option because that scenario was part of the original proposed rule, he added.

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