U.S.-VISIT Changes Tune on Biometric Exit Process

U.S. airlines are "apoplectic" about Department of Homeland Security plans to make them collect fingerprints to verify the identity of departing international visitors, according to a senior lawmaker.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the ranking member of the House Aviation Subcommittee, said he had spoken with representatives of the airlines about the proposal, and "They are apoplectic."

Mica told United Press International he himself had "significant concerns" about the plans for the so-called exit component of U.S.-VISIT, the Homeland Security system that biometrically verifies the identity of many foreign visitors to the United States.

Airline-industry representatives declined to comment to UPI, saying they did not have enough information about the plan.

U.S.-VISIT officials will brief airline representatives Wednesday in Washington, said Bob Davidson, the manager of facilitation services for the International Air Transport Association.

"We are hopeful that they will provide us with enough information so that we can start considering a response," he said. "At present, the industry does not have a clear enough picture to enable us to begin thinking through the ramifications."

Angelo Amador, the director of Immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told UPI that industry concerns centered on the issues of infrastructure -- the cost and practicalities of installing fingerprint readers connected to U.S.-VISIT databases at thousands of check-in desks -- and contingency plans in case of equipment failure.

"What will happen if there are technological problems?" he asked. "Will they prevent people from boarding? Make them miss their flights?"

The department announced Friday it was abandoning a series of pilot projects testing a stand-alone process for taking fingerprints from departing air and sea passengers and "intends to integrate biometric exit procedures into the existing international visitor departure process."

Currently, almost all foreigners arriving by air or sea who are not so-called Green Card holders -- legal permanent residents -- and most visa holders and other third-country nationals arriving at the land ports of entry are checked by U.S.-VISIT.

Visa holders are enrolled in the system when they apply at U.S. embassies, and other visitors, such as those from the 27 nations whose citizens can enter for 90 days without a visa, are enrolled the first time they come to the United States. Thereafter, their fingerprints are used to confirm that they are the same person issued the visa or allowed entry without one before.

Officials say the entry portion of U.S.-VISIT has been one of the Department of Homeland Security's rare successes -- catching more than 2,000 criminals and other immigration violators in the years since it was rolled out -- though they have not been able to point to a single definite apprehension or interdiction of a terrorist.

But without an exit component -- a way of verifying the identities of foreigners leaving the country -- the system cannot identify those who are staying in the United States longer than they are allowed.

Homeland Security has for two years been running pilot projects at 14 U.S. air and sea ports, using small kiosks in departure lounges at which foreigners can submit their fingerprints as they leave. But only a small minority of travelers has been using the system, according to an audit last year by the Government Accountability Office.

"Testing showed that (the use of the kiosks) wasn't a viable option," the GAO's Richard Stana told UPI.

"Given the analysis of the pilots and other potential options, (Homeland Security) has determined that U.S.-VISIT air exit should be incorporated into the airline check-in process," reads a strategic plan for the system submitted to Congress by the department.

The plan says that the department will begin implementing the exit component at airports "over the next year," and "Sea port deployment will occur after the air environment, so lessons learned can be applied."

But the plan lays out no timetable for an exit portion at the land borders.

"Because of the immense scope and complexity of the land border ... exit information cannot be practically based on biometric validation in the short term," it says.

Mica said that this was "a huge gap" in the proposed system, adding that it did not make sense to introduce exit verification only for airline passengers, because using the system to identify those who were overstaying their visas relied on a comprehensive check of all visitors leaving.

"We need to look at everyone going out," he said, adding that "unless we have uniform procedures," the system's utility would be severely limited.

"It does not make sense to leave that (task of collecting fingerprints) in a haphazard fashion to airline employees," he said.

Homeland Security said it had "recently" begun discussions with the airline industry and "will be working with air carriers to implement" the exit component. The department "will publish a regulation in the future outlining its plans for implementing an integrated air exit strategy."