Soon after 9-11, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act, which moved Entry-Exit to the nascent DHS and recommended inclusion of biometric components—such as fingerprints—in monitoring. DHS officially re-launched the effort as US-VISIT early in 2003.
DHS found early success in meeting the deadlines set forth by Congress for Entry-Exit before 9-11. By the end of 2003, photo and electronic fingerprint collection were in place at the country’s 115 air points of entry (POEs) and 14 sea POEs, and scanning began in early 2004. By the end of 2006, data collection was in place at 154 of the 170 land POEs that had U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) checkpoints.
US-VISIT’s primary security benefit at entry is vetting of an individual’s biometric data against data collected when the U.S. State Department issued the traveler’s corresponding visa. It is now extremely difficult, if not impossible, for an individual to obtain a visa, then pass his or her identification to another individual who would then present it at a POE in an effort to enter the United States using a false identity.
In addition to screening that occurs during consideration of the individual’s visa application, the individual’s personal information and fingerprints are vetted at the POE against several federal databases containing information on prior deportees and individuals with suspected links to terror.
At its outset, US-VISIT only collected two fingerprints, from travelers’ index fingers. Over the past several years, however, the program has implemented 10-digit fingerprint collection. US-VISIT Director Robert Mocny of DHS explains that the change came in response to the FBI’s post-PATRIOT Act investigations into terrorist and insurgent activities around the world. In many cases, sets of latent fingerprints collected at crime scenes are incomplete and do not provide index fingers. Thus, US-VISIT’s 10-print collection increases the chances of “hits” from the additional prints. Enrollment currently takes as little as 10 seconds, according to DHS.
US-VISIT’s full coverage of POEs does not mean, however, that all legal entries are enrolled in US-VISIT or checked against the program’s growing database, which DHS says contains more than 103 million identities. Citizens of the 35 countries enrolled in the State Department’s Visa Waiver Program are not required to obtain visas for trips in the United States shorter than 90 days, and they were initially not required to enroll in US-VISIT.
That changed in late 2004, and now they must enroll if they enter through an air POE. At land POEs, however, only travelers selected for secondary screening are registered for or screened under US-VISIT. This, Mocny says, generally spares Canadian citizens who state they are visiting briefly, and any Canadian or Mexican citizen who presents one of several “trusted traveler” cards, like SENTRI cards issued to vetted Mexican citizens.
Seeking to address congressional concerns about the lack of full US-VISIT vetting at land POEs, Mocny told lawmakers in 2007 that more than 90 percent of foreign visitors to the U.S. from so-called “countries of interest” enter the United States by air—not land or sea.
Free to Go
US-VISIT’s robust, if not universal, entry processing was implemented with relative ease, due primarily to existing physical infrastructure at POEs and established customs and security screening procedures. With regard to exit monitoring, however, there weren’t established procedures, and while checkpoints could do double-duty as exit screening points for people departing by air, that was not the case for land POEs.
The New York Times reported in 2006 that DHS had given up on implementing exit data collection, with then assistant secretary of homeland security Stewart Baker placing the cost of exit monitoring in the “tens of billions of dollars.”
Complicating implementation is the absence of checkpoint booths for outbound lanes at POEs. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that expansion of some land crossing facilities to accommodate the need for exit checkpoints would be inhibited by nearby railroad tracks and commercial structures or the natural terrain, such as solid rock in the case of a crossing in Alexandria Bay, New York.
Last year, DHS had issued a proposed rule for implementation of exit data collection for departure by air, proposing that airlines collect biometric data at exit. But the plan was rebuked not only by airlines, which saw the plan as a massive unfunded mandate, but also by the country’s airport operators, which feared delays for travelers and diversion of DHS personnel from their existing responsibilities for oversight of the exit component, says A.J. Muldoon, senior manager of the Airports Council International – North America’s Center for Policy and Regulatory Affairs.
DHS has yet to issue a final rule for air exit. However, in the meantime, Congress has required that the agency conduct two separate pilot tests for air exit data collection: one to be conducted by airlines and one by CBP.
The airlines, which were not obligated to participate, declined. Elizabeth Merida, spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, says the airline industry remains opposed to involvement in border management. “We feel that both the entry and exit portions of the program should be performed by the government authorities who are already part of the program,” Merida says.
DHS conducted two air exit pilot tests earlier this year, one with the CBP; the other with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which runs U.S. airport security checkpoints. Both exit pilot tests mirror US-VISIT entry electronic collection of fingerprints and photographs, using either a countertop machine or a hand-held camera/scanner. The TSA pilot tests incorporated the process into existing checkpoints, while CBP collected data at departure gates.
Merging US-VISIT scanning with existing TSA checkpoints is the simplest option, but Mocny notes that it carries a critical flaw: foreigners screened by the TSA could pass through the checkpoint and leave the airport. The option tested by CBP could better maintain the integrity of the process, Mocny notes.
Officials in the U.K., meanwhile, have conducted pilot tests in which, at boarding, airline personnel scan personal data incorporated into travelers’ boarding passes, then scan travelers fingerprints using a small optical reader. Mocny says that the U.S. airline industry has expressed openness to such an option because it would place only moderate burdens on airline staff and would not dramatically affect passenger throughput. The airline industry, however, has not publicly accepted such a proposal.
Lawmakers await DHS’s official report on its two pilot programs, which will likely affect future funding for US-VISIT’s exit component. For now, U.S. departure reporting remains limited to the requirement that persons in the United States on a visa turn in their I-94 arrival-departure form—a hand-written, biographical document—to CBP or their transportation carrier before they leave the U.S. Failure to do so may affect future attempts to travel legally in the United States, but it will not prevent departure.
Elsewhere in the world, only Japan collects fingerprints and photos at entry. Only Japan, Hong Kong, and Australia conduct mandatory exit inspections, requiring review of travel documents. The European Union has drafted plans for entry fingerprint collection, while several countries—including the U.K. and Saudi Arabia—collect fingerprints as part of the visa application process.