DHS undecided about exit portion of US-VISIT program

The Homeland Security Department is still undecided about pursuing a biometric system at airports to verify that non-U.S. citizens leave when required.

The Homeland Security Department hasn’t decided whether it will pursue a biometric exit system that would electronically collect fingerprints from foreign visitors as they depart from U.S. airports to ensure they leave as required, a senior DHS official said today.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano is expected to make a decision on the future of the system after an upcoming review, Rand Beers, undersecretary for DHS’ National Protection and Programs Directorate, told the House Homeland Security Committee.

Beers said the pending review of options for the exit system – that would be part of the department’s U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program – is on Napolitano’s calendar, but he didn’t say when the assessment would happen or when a final decision on the program would be made.

The government already collects fingerprints from non-U.S. visitors when they arrive in the country through the US-VISIT air entry system. However, 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 collect the biometric data and foot the bill — estimated to cost billions during the coming decade — have stymied the program.

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Exit system for foreign travelers stands at a crossroads

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

The second 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. Although the proposal to have airlines collect the data hasn’t been formally scrapped, DHS under the Obama administration seems to be heading in a different direction.

In response to a request from lawmakers, the US-VISIT office recently tested scenarios in which the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency collected fingerprints from non-citizens departing from airports.

Beers told committee members that Napolitano already reviewed the initial findings of the TSA and CBP pilot programs and her upcoming assessment would include answers to questions she had after that initial examination.

Meanwhile, Beers said the Obama administration’s decision not to request funding for the biometric air exit system in its fiscal 2011 budget request for DHS doesn’t mean the department has decided not to pursue the program. Rather, he said, the budget was prepared “in a time sequence which did not allow us to provide an accurate budget estimate for a biometric air exit system.”

In addition, Beers said DHS still has $50 million available for a pilot program that could be used for the program, depending on the department’s a decision on how to proceed. The administration could then request money for the program in its fiscal 2012 budget request, he said.