- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Department of Homeland Security is not expected to implement a congressionally mandated program that would confirm the departure of foreign visitors from the United States through electronic fingerprint scans — a so-called biometric exit system.

Two department officials, who asked not to be named because the matter involves internal deliberations, told The Washington Times that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will discuss options about the system at a special meeting Wednesday. But the officials said Ms. Napolitano is strongly leaning toward an exit-control system based on gathering the names of departing foreigners, rather than their fingerprints — an option known as a biographical solution.

Abandoning plans for biometric exit would require Congress to reverse repeated legislative mandates for such a system, designed by lawmakers to solve one of the thorniest problems in immigration control and enforcement: knowing whether foreign visitors are leaving the country when they should.

Those who remain after their visas expire represent as much as 40 percent of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, and many lawmakers see exit controls as an essential component of any effort to restore integrity to the troubled immigration system.

But planning for an exit system has stalled under successive administrations as officials have grappled with the logistical challenges involved. There has been widespread concern about the cost and the impact on the country’s already congested airports and border crossings.

Now, Homeland Security officials say they can confirm a foreigner’s departure, at least at airports, by using passenger manifests provided by the airlines and the paper documents returned to immigration authorities.

There is no comprehensive departure control at U.S. land border crossings, and no real planning for any — although Homeland Security is piloting a biometric exit system for certain classes of temporary agricultural worker visa holders at two southern border crossing points this year.

In 2008, the Bush administration proposed regulations that would have made it the job of the airlines to collect departing passengers’ fingerprints, but the plan stalled amid determined opposition from the industry and multibillion-dollar estimates of the price tag.

Homeland Security officials have publicly sidestepped the issue, which is politically charged on Capitol Hill — where several influential lawmakers have insisted on fulfilling the mandate for a biometric system — and among U.S. allies overseas, notably Poland.

Legislation promoted last year by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, effectively bars the administration from allowing any new countries into the visa waiver program until a biometric exit system is in place. Polish officials have been vying for years to get into the program, of which its European Union partner nations are all members.

“The department is working closely with its internal components, Congress, and many stakeholders to determine the costs and benefits of implementing a biometric air exit program,” Bob Mocny said in a statement. Mr. Mocny is director of US-VISIT, the Homeland Security program that collects electronic fingerprints from most foreign visitors as they arrive — and is widely seen as a rare success story for the department.

US-VISIT, which would be expected to implement any exit-monitoring system, ran pilot programs last year at Atlanta and Detroit airports, where federal employees collected fingerprints. In Detroit, Customs and Border Protection officers used hand-held scanners for departing passengers as they boarded the planes. In Atlanta, Transportation Security Administration personnel used the scanners at screening checkpoints.

One Homeland Security official said the pilot programs were successful and demonstrated that the job could be accomplished at a much lower cost than estimated.

But in public, officials have downplayed the test programs. At a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee this year about foreigners who overstay their visas, Homeland Security Undersecretary Rand Beers, who oversees US-VISIT, did not even mention the pilot programs in his opening remarks.

Instead, Mr. Beers highlighted the work with biographical exit data — using lists of arriving and departing foreigners to identify those who had entered the country but not left on time, so that overstayers could be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“We have confidence that the information US-VISIT provides to ICE will be increasingly credible and actionable,” he said.

US-VISIT’s Data Integrity Group checks the names of thousands of suspected overstayers each week against a variety of databases, Mr. Mocny said, and forwards hundreds of them a week to ICE.

Mr. Beers told Congress that the names forwarded meet certain “national security” criteria established by ICE. The exact criteria are classified, but include age, gender and country of origin.

Mr. Beers told Congress that ICE arrested 568 overstayers last year as a result of leads forwarded from US-VISIT. He added that more than 1,000 identified overstayers who had left the country were subsequently denied visas, while nearly 1,500 more were denied re-entry into the United States.

Officials would not comment on the timeline for any decision about an exit system, but Mr. Beers told Congress in March that Ms. Napolitano’s second review of the issue was “on her calendar.”

• Shaun Waterman can be reached at 123@example.com.

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