US-VISIT Examines Latest Attempt to Keep Exit Records
By Austin Wright and Stew Magnuson
The Department of Homeland Security expects to release a report by the end of the year detailing the results of its latest effort to scan fingerprints and snap photos of foreign nationals as they exit the country, said officials from the US-VISIT program.
Efforts to collect exit biometrics have hit several stumbling blocks since the 2004 release of the 9/11 Commission report, which urged the federal government to keep better records of who’s leaving the country. Several of the 9/11 hijackers could have been denied entry to the United States if the government had known they overstayed their previous visits, the report concluded.
US-VISIT’s latest pilot program had a nearly 100 percent compliance rate, and the agency was able to match 92.5 percent of foreign nationals’ biometric data to corresponding entry records, said DHS spokeswoman Anna Hinken. It would cost $1.3 billion to $2.8 billion to expand the program nationwide, she added.
US-VISIT currently collects biometrics of foreign nationals as they enter the country. The agency sends that information to federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies, and it also checks the data against its list of suspected terrorists and criminals.
Since the release of the 9/11 Commission report, the agency has twice tested its ability to collect the same information as foreign nationals exit the country. From 2004 to 2007, US-VISIT set up automated kiosks at 14 ports of exit, but compliance rates were so low that the agency scrapped the program. “The airports gave us locations that weren’t always easy to find for the traveler,” Hinken said.
A second pilot program, which will be described in the upcoming report, took place between May and July of 2008. The agency set up kiosks at airports in Atlanta and Detroit. This time, immigration and transportation officers manned the stations, which were placed in areas all travelers passed as they made their way to their flights. “There was actually an officer there, and they were placed at chokepoints,” Hinken said. “The process worked really well.”
Shonnie Lyon, acting deputy director of Homeland Security’s US-VISIT program, said a nationwide exit program would help domestic law-enforcement and immigration officials. “We could tell if somebody hasn’t left the U.S. and has overstayed their visit,” he said at a National Defense Industrial Association homeland security conference. “If someone has left but violated the terms of their last stay, we could better determine whether to let them come back.”
A proposal made under the Bush administration to have airlines collect the data as passengers checked in for their flights was met with widespread opposition from the air transport industry.