- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2007

U.S. airlines are furious about plans by the Department of Homeland Security to make them collect fingerprints to verify the identities of departing international visitors, one lawmaker said.

Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he had spoken with airline representatives about the proposal and “they are apoplectic.”

Mr. Mica told United Press International that he also had “significant concerns” about the plans for the exit component of U.S.-VISIT, the Homeland Security system that biometrically verifies the identities of many foreign visitors to the United States.

Airline industry representatives declined to comment, saying they did not have enough information about the plan.

U.S.-VISIT officials will brief airline representatives today in Washington, said Bob Davidson, the manager of facilitation services for the International Air Transport Association.

“We are hopeful that they will provide us with enough information so that we can start considering a response,” Mr. Davidson said. “At present, the industry does not have a clear enough picture to enable us to begin thinking through the ramifications.”

The department announced Friday that it was abandoning a series of pilot projects that tested a stand-alone process for taking fingerprints from departing air and sea passengers. Instead, it plans to “integrate biometric exit procedures into the existing international visitor departure process.”

Almost all foreigners arriving by air or sea who are not legal permanent residents as well as most visa holders and other third-country nationals arriving at the land ports of entry are checked by U.S.-VISIT.

But no system is in place to verify the identities of foreigners leaving the country.

For two years, the department ran pilot projects at 14 U.S. air and sea ports. The project involved using kiosks in departure lounges, at which departing foreigners could submit their fingerprints. But only a small minority of travelers used the system, according to an audit last year by the Government Accountability Office.

“Testing showed that wasn’t a viable option,” the GAO’s Richard Stana said.

“Given the analysis of the pilots and other potential options, has determined that U.S.-VISIT air exit should be incorporated into the airline check-in process,” reads a strategic plan for the system that the department submitted to Congress.

The plan says the department will begin implementing the exit component at airports “over the next year.”

It lays out no timetable for an exit portion at the land borders.

“Because of the immense scope and complexity of the land border exit information cannot be practically based on biometric validation in the short term,” the plan states.

Mr. Mica said that this is a “huge gap” in the proposed system, adding that it does not make sense to introduce exit verification only for airline passengers, because using the system to identify those who were overstaying their visas relied on a comprehensive check of all visitors.

“We need to look at everyone going out,” he said.

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