DHS readies plan to track foreigners flying from U.S.

One U.S. program fingerprints and photographs foreign visitors, and a plan in the works would screen them at airports as they left, too.
One U.S. program fingerprints and photographs foreign visitors, and a plan in the works would screen them at airports as they left, too. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/associated Press)

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By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Department of Homeland Security is finalizing a proposal to collect fingerprints or eye scans from all foreign travelers at U.S. airports as they leave the country, officials said, a costly screening program that airlines have opposed.

The plan, which would take effect within two years, would collect fingerprints at airport security checkpoints, departure gates or terminal kiosks, allowing the government to track when roughly 35 million foreign visitors a year leave the country and who might be overstaying their visas, DHS officials said. The department plans to send the proposal to the White House as soon as next month for review and inclusion in President Obama's next budget.

Some experts and former government officials are skeptical. In a concession to industry, DHS said it probably will drop plans to require airlines to pay for the bulk of the program and is looking to cut costs, which could reach $1 billion to $2 billion over a decade, largely to be paid by taxpayers or foreign travelers. In addition, the program would not operate for now at land borders, where 80 percent of noncitizens enter and leave the country, because fingerprinting travelers there could cost billions more and significantly delay commerce.

The ultimate scope of the system -- how rigorous it is and its final price tag -- will signal how the Obama administration and a Democratic Congress balance expensive post-9/11 security mandates against the nation's financial constraints, analysts and former government officials said. Congress might have to reexamine the value of border controls that a few years ago were deemed critical for security and for curbing illegal immigration but that might be less effective than first thought or carry unpopular economic or diplomatic costs, they added.

Meeting a mandate

"It will be up to Congress to put its money where its mandate is," a senior DHS official said, outlining the plans on the condition of anonymity because Secretary Janet Napolitano has not made a final decision. "The administration and Congress have to decide how they want to implement this in times of budget austerity."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a prominent congressional supporter of the tracking requirement, said she was pleased with DHS's "long overdue" move.

"A biometric exit system is critical to tracking the arrival and departure of foreign nationals -- not just through a paper trail, but through fingerprints, photographs, and other fraud-proof biometric identifiers," Feinstein said in an e-mail statement.

The DHS proposal marks the latest government step to satisfy a 1996 mandate by Congress to automatically track when foreigners enter and exit the country. Independent analysts have estimated that 40 percent of illegal immigrants enter the country legally and overstay their visas.

Congress focused on inbound travelers after the 2001 terrorist attacks -- several of the hijackers held expired visas -- appropriating $3 billion since 2003 on the US-VISIT tracking program. The program collects biological identifiers, such as fingerprints and digital photographs, from all arriving foreigners except Canadians and Mexicans with special border-crossing cards.

In 2004, lawmakers ordered that similar information also be collected from noncitizens upon exit but did not set a deadline.

By the time Bush administration officials unveiled a $3.5 billion program in April 2008, however, political impetus for changes had weakened. Air carriers protested that they had not been consulted and should not bear the bulk of the liability and cost of what they argued was the government's duty to fingerprint travelers. The requirement also bucked industry trends of cutting costs by automating boarding processes and moving passengers away from ticket counters.

DHS officials accused airlines of obstructing the proposal. In the end, industry lobbyists persuaded Congress to delay the plan until tests were completed this year. Industry leaders said they still hope the administration consults them.

"As far along as they are in the process, they haven't spoken a word to trade associations or any of our airlines," said Ken Dunlap, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, a trade group for 230 carriers.

Costs vs. risks

DHS officials said they are considering ways to hold down costs. Collecting fingerprints at security checkpoints would be cheaper than doing so at the departure gates, but checkpoints could be more prone to fraud by people who leave the airport instead of boarding their flights. Fingerprinting at departure gates, however, would require more workers, DHS officials said.

Such trade-offs raise more basic questions about the purpose of the program. Supporters say that, by collecting fingerprints and other data, officials can instantly check the identity of a foreign visitor leaving the country against security watch lists. It could also help target foreigners who have violated immigration law.

But critics point out that potential terrorists entering the country present a greater concern than those leaving. And, they say, when it comes to immigration violations, the new system would add only a marginal benefit.

DHS says it already can identify noncitizens who leave the country about 93 percent of the time by comparing passenger records of international airliners on arrival and departure. Officials said they think the rest mostly involve people who leave the country by land or whose names are recorded improperly at some point. Of the 200,000 to 400,000 travelers each year who immigration officials estimate overstay their visas, US-VISIT identifies those deemed a higher priority for investigation based on their nationality, age, sex and other biographical factors.

"The idea that there are serious national security risks that we've identified but we haven't pursued because we don't have an exit system is simply not plausible," said Stewart A. Baker, who was DHS undersecretary of policy from 2005 to 2008.

Among the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, the bigger problem is catching those considered a high priority, whether they overstay visas, commit serious crimes, violate deportation orders or pose other threats, Baker said.

The current system of tracking incoming visitors gave immigration officials leads last year on more than 14,000 who potentially presented a high risk, leading to 750 arrests. But the immigration agency office in charge of catching overstayers spent only $42 million on those investigations. Baker said that, before the government spends more to add names to the list of those in the country illegally, it should expand enforcement efforts.

Others noted that an airport-based system can be evaded by people who drive over the border.

"If you're doing this for immigration control purposes, how can you have a complete system without doing land" borders, said Robert C. Bonner, the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection from 2003 to 2005. "Other than congressional pressure, the question is, why do this?"

The senior DHS official defended the pending proposal. "This would add a level of certainty to the departures of one category of people who came into the U.S. . . . in the air category," the official said, adding, "It is a partial solution and it should never be seen as more than that."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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