By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 22, 2008
The airline industry and embassies of 34 countries, including the members of the European Union, are urging the U.S. government to withdraw a plan that would require airlines and cruise lines to collect digital fingerprints of all foreigners before they depart the United States, starting in August 2009.
Their opposition could trigger a battle with Congress and the Bush administration, which want the new plan established quickly.
Airlines said the change would cost the industry $12.3 billion over 10 years, not $3.5 billion as the Department of Homeland Security estimated in unveiling the proposal in April. Representatives of the nations affected said it is the duty of the U.S. government, not private companies, to enforce immigration and border security laws, and they raised privacy concerns about companies collecting fingerprints.
"This proposal to outsource the core government function of border control at a time that airlines around the world are fighting for their economic survival is both unwarranted and counterproductive," said Giovanni Bisignani, director general and chief executive of the International Air Transport Association.
The plan to track exiting foreign visitors is part of a program known as US-VISIT, an initiative that Congress first promoted in 1996 and launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to use fingerprints and digital photographs to automate the processing of visitors entering and exiting the country. For security reasons, U.S. officials have put a priority on identifying incoming visitors. Setting up systems to record exits is much more costly but still can help enforce immigration laws and track security risks.
This year, 24 foreign carriers and about eight U.S. carriers have halted operations, gone out of business or sought bankruptcy protection. The carriers stand to lose $6.1 billion this year if the price of oil remains at $135 a barrel, Bisignani said in a letter Thursday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff.
The alliance, whose 230 members include 78 that fly to and from the United States, said airlines and passengers have spent $30 billion for often duplicative and bureaucratic security measures since 9/11.
"This uncoordinated and costly mess can no longer be dismissed as simply 'the cost of doing business,' " Bisignani said. He called on DHS to integrate and streamline five passenger-data-collection programs that include reservation system data, passenger manifest information and immigration and customs forms.
Clive Wright, a senior British Embassy official in Washington, wrote on behalf of 34 governments, saying they "are seriously concerned" about the new fingerprint mandate for private companies. He argued that the requirements pose privacy, liability and business risks to airlines far more costly and difficult than any issues they now face in handling immigration issues.
"The implications . . . are so severe they require further consultation, reflection and reworking," Wright told DHS in written remarks for a June 13 meeting that were later released.
In a message Wednesday to the State Department, the German Embassy said that the collection of fingerprints by private companies should "only be the last resort" and that DHS should maintain full custody over sensitive personal data.
The opposition may pose a test for the Bush administration and Congress. Lawmakers have turned up pressure to combat illegal immigration and tighten border security.
"The airline industry's quarrel here is with the 9/11 Commission and the U.S. Congress, and not with the Department of Homeland Security," said Stewart A. Baker, DHS assistant secretary for policy.
Congress last year set a July 2009 deadline, which DHS says it can meet by the next month, for DHS to begin collecting fingerprints from departing air passengers; the mandate is part of a law to implement recommendations of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks. Lawmakers were frustrated by DHS's slow pace in expanding US-VISIT.
The program has recorded images and fingerprints of nearly 100 million people entering the country since 2004. It has helped find criminals and deter potential terrorists, Homeland Security officials say. Supporters in Congress also see the program as a way to determine whether people are overstaying their visas and joining the nation's illegal immigrant population.
Lawmakers say neither the Bush administration nor its successor can expand the Visa Waiver Program -- under which residents of 27 friendly countries can visit the United States without visas -- after 2009 without setting up a biometric exit system.
While the administration will pay careful attention to comments and respects its European partners, Baker said, "at the end of the day, controlling our border is a question we have to decide -- how we're going to do that and how carefully.
"We recognize it will be difficult for a new administration, whoever is president, to finish a controversial regulation, so we are working very hard to finish the implementation of this on our watch."