Exit system for foreign travelers stands at a crossroads

The Obama administration is poised to make a decision about whether and how to proceed with a stalled program to electronically collect fingerprints from foreign visitors as they depart from airports in the United States.

So far, putting a biometric exit system in place at airports has proved difficult, despite pressure from Congress to do so. Logistical complexities and disputes over who should foot the bill — estimated to cost billions in the coming decade — have stymied the program.

Advocates of the system say it would boost immigration controls and could bolster counterterrorism efforts, while critics question whether the benefits are worth the hefty price tag.

Visitors are asked to submit a form when they leave the country, and observers say authorities are able to identify more than 90 percent of departures from that. But critics say that system is insufficient because not everyone complies and the biographic information doesn't let authorities verify that departing visitors are who they say they are.

A biometric-based exit system would be part of the Homeland Security Department’s U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program, which already collects fingerprints from foreign visitors when they arrive in the United States. The program would also collect fingerprints from foreign visitors departing from U.S. seaports, but officials say the logistics of sea travel make that scenario less complicated.

The Bush administration proposed requiring commercial air carriers to collect exit information at airports, but the plan stalled after it met resistance from the airline industry and some foreign governments.

The Obama administration must decide whether to pursue a biometrics-based exit program and, if it does, who will collect the fingerprints from departing visitors and how they will do so. In response to a request from lawmakers, the US-VISIT office recently tested scenarios in which the Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection agency collected fingerprints from noncitizens departing from U.S. airports.

The tests were conducted last summer at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport at a cost of $5 million.

US-VISIT Director Robert Mocny said the tests demonstrated that the government could collect the fingerprints, a fact that didn’t surprise officials. “We have enough data now to make a decision,” he added.

Although the airline option is technically still on the table as part of the proposed rule published by the Bush administration, Mocny predicts that if the Obama administration chooses to go forward with the exit program, it will opt for having TSA, CBP or a contractor collect the necessary information.

“The thinking here and with this administration is, ‘Let’s not have the airlines do it. Let’s not take that fight on,’ ” he said.

When the Bush administration published its proposed rule, the airlines cited the massive amount of money they would need to pay to rework their information technology systems to accommodate the program.

In 2008, the government estimated that the proposed air and sea biometric exit program would cost about $3.5 billion during a 10-year period with air carriers picking up most of the tab. On the other hand, it would cost more than $4.7 billion for the government to collect the information at security checkpoints during that same timeframe, according to the estimates.

Ken Dunlap, director of security for North America at the International Air Transport Association, said the concerns about costs are compounded by the $11 billion the airlines are predicted to lose this year.

Beyond the expense, experts say the effort would require logistical mastery because even small delays in air travel can compound quickly.

US-VISIT officials are updating the cost estimates, but they say the existing numbers provide enough information for decision-making purposes.

“We’ve got enough data out there to slice it and dice it any way you want, and technologically, it’s not an issue,” Mocny said. “There’s no ‘gotcha’ stuff or ‘aha’ stuff we’re looking for. It’s going to be the political decision to do it and then the funding in this tight economy.”

Congress first asked for an automated entry/exit system in 1996. In 2004, the commission that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks recommended implementing a biometrics-based system.

However, Stewart Baker, who was DHS’ assistant secretary for policy when the Bush administration proposed that airlines collect the data, said having an air exit system is probably more of an immigration concern than a counterterrorism one.

Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute and a commissioner at the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration, also said capturing biometrics at departure is probably most important for immigration control and records accuracy, but she added that it could also support counterterrorism and law enforcement.

“I think it’s fair to say that US-VISIT may well be one of the most effective new initiatives from both an immigration control and a counterterrorism standpoint that has come about as a response to 9/11,” she said. “But it is incomplete because it focuses on entry.”

Meissner said she thinks the government should go forward with a biometric exit system, as the technology permits, as long as it doesn't impede commerce or violate people's rights.  

But there is disagreement about whether a biometric exit system is worth the cost.

“It’s a complicated question, and at the end of the day, I think there’s some question about whether it’s going to be cost-effective,” said Baker, now a partner at the Washington law office of Steptoe and Johnson.

For a biometric component to be of value, DHS would need more resources to track down violators, he added. If the government decides to have CBP or TSA collect the fingerprints, the question becomes: “How badly does Congress want DHS to do that — badly enough to pay for it with additional resources?”

Mocny said that to influence the budget for fiscal 2011, officials must make a decision about the exit system soon. Legislation to fund DHS for fiscal 2010 would provide $50 million for the airport-based exit effort and $373 million for US-VISIT overall, up from the $300 million DHS received for the program in 2009.

Although there is a fairly effective program in place to identify people who have overstayed their visas, Mocny said, biometrics would increase the certainty that departing visitors are who they say they are. Such a system would signal that the government is serious about enforcing the law and give the program a visible presence at airports, Mocny said.

However, a biometric exit system at airports and seaports would just be a step toward deploying the comprehensive biometric-based entry/exit system at all U.S. border crossings. Experts say a system that collects biometric information at land border crossings without impeding commerce and travel would be even more complex.

Mocny stressed that the administration’s upcoming decision on a biometric exit system will focus on airports and seaports.

“I think we’ll bite this off in smaller, chewable chunks, so to speak,” he said.

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