Politics & Policy

Exit Stage Right

Taking border control seriously.

For more than a decade, the feds all but ignored congressional calls to build an exit system capable of tracking whether visitors to this country leave when they’re supposed to.

No longer. On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security unveiled a plan to make meaningful exit controls at airports a reality. The administration is proposing that airlines collect fingerprints from departing aliens. DHS would match the records against prints taken when aliens arrived to find out who hasn’t left on time.

Exit has been a long time coming. Congress mandated exit controls in 1996, in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The issue became even hotter after 9/11. 2004 saw DHS launch the US-VISIT program, which takes biometrics — fingerprints and photographs — from aliens when they enter the U.S. Its exit component was slower to get off the ground. At the time, it made sense to prioritize entry over exit. The administration reasonably decided that it was more important to keep terrorists out of the country than to verify whether visitors had left.

Yet Congress understandably has grown eager for DHS to turn its attention to the other half of the problem. In 2007 legislation that implements some of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, Congress set a hard deadline of August 3, 2008 for DHS to establish a biometric exit system.

The main value of exit is related to immigration — the ability to verify that guests don’t overstay their welcome. Federal immigration officers can use exit data to track down violators who are still in the country and have them deported. Less direct enforcement is possible, too. State and local police can use exit data to check whether an alien pulled over for a traffic stop is out of status. And if border officials know a particular visitor previously overstayed, they can bar him from entering if he later tries to return to the U.S.

While exit is largely about immigration, it also has national security-advantages. According to the 9/11 Commission, four of the September 11 hijackers — including Mohamed Atta, the plot’s operational ringleader — had overstayed in the past. Hijacker Ziad Jarrah was an overstay when a Maryland state trooper gave him a speeding ticket just two days before the attacks. With an exit system, border officials could have turned away some of the hijackers when they subsequently tried to reenter the U.S. And police could have taken Jarrah into custody after a garden variety traffic stop.

Why is DHS asking airlines to gather departure information on its behalf? The short answer is: Because they already do so. Right now, airlines are responsible for collecting biographic data about departing aliens — names, passport numbers, and the like — and transmitting it to DHS. The administration proposal simply adds another type of information to the list — fingerprints, a more reliable data point for matching entry and exit records.

The longer answer is: Because there’s no other way to run exit effectively. Taking fingerprints at the TSA security checkpoint would distract already overburdened screeners from their job of keeping weapons off planes. And allowing aliens to check out at out-of-the-way airport kiosks — which DHS tried in an early exit pilot — virtually guarantees low passenger compliance.

This is not to say the administration’s plan is flawless. It isn’t.

For starters, airlines are on the hook for buying fingerprint scanners, taking prints, and sending large data files to DHS. That won’t be cheap. According to one estimate, the tab could run as high as $2.7 billion over ten years. In an era of soaring fuel prices and airline bankruptcies, it seems gratuitous to pile new costs on the travel industry. If airlines help the government track departures, the least the government can do is help airlines foot the bill. Congress and the administration should consider appropriating funds to offset at least some of the airlines’ costs.

Also, the DHS plan could engender confusion among travelers. Under the administration proposal, airlines get to choose where at the airport they will take fingerprints. The desire to give airlines flexibility is laudable, but it virtually assures they will adopt inconsistent solutions. Passengers flying out of JFK might have their fingerprints taken at the check-in counter, while aliens leaving Dulles might give their prints at the gate. Even worse, different airlines at the same airport might adopt different practices.

Certain passenger confusion is not a recipe for success. The administration should pick a uniform standard on where departing aliens will have their prints taken. Perhaps the best option is to do it at the jetway. If aliens give their prints at the ticket counter or a kiosk, it would be possible for them to check out but then abscond from the airport without actually leaving the U.S. It’s harder to game the system if a traveler’s fingerprints are taken as he boards the plane. Gateside collection offers stronger assurances that aliens in fact leave the country.

Exit controls aren’t a new idea. Congress has been calling for them since the 1990s, and other countries across the globe have run successful exit systems for years. What’s new is that the United States is finally getting into the game. The administration’s proposal is a reasonable way of keeping tabs on visitors who overstay their welcome and others who travel to this country with more malign intentions.

 – Nathan A. Sales is a law professor at George Mason University School of Law. He served in the Bush administration at the departments of Justice and Homeland Security.


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