Yesterday the United States Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-to-5 in favour of an amendment, as part of immigration reform, to require the finger printing of all foreign travelers departing the United States. The bill, proposed by Senator Orin Hatch (R-UT), implements biometric tracking of foreign travelers under the Department of Transportation in three phases.
Phase one of the implementation would include biometric data collection in the 10 busiest international passenger airports in the United States within two years of the passing of the larger immigration reform bill by the U.S. Congress.
The second phase of the implementation is six years from the passing of the larger immigration reform bill by the U.S. Congress, with biometric data collection taking places in 30 international gateway airports in the United States.
Phase three would require the head of the Secretary of Transportation submitting a detailed action plan for expanding the finger printing of all foreign travelers departing the United States to all major sea and land entry and exit points.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s bill must be passed with the full immigration reform bill, which is likely to be voted on this coming Wednesday, where it is expected to pass. Should the bill be passed it must be voted on by the U.S. Congress then signed into law by the President of the United States. The President has repeatedly stated that immigration reform is a top priority issue for him … but … does the requiring of fingerprints from travelers exiting the country make sense?
Many countries around the world have Exit Immigrations. Depart the European Union, except the United Kingdom, and you pass through exit immigration, depart from Japan, Bahrain, South Korea, Hong Kong and you are subject to exit immigrations. Exit immigrations does make sense for tracking the whereabouts of travelers coming and going from international departure points, but none of these countries require exit finger prints.
If the United States government stated they wanted exit immigrations to be in line with the Immigrations and Customs practices of the majority of countries in the world that would be one thing, but they do not want to be in line with the rest of the world, they want to try something different. The U.S. Government wants to add an extra layer of security theater rather that legitimate security. The U.S. Government is seeking to make traveling to and from the United States more of a hassle than it needs to be because, in short, it sounds good. It looks like it is adding an extra later of data aide at security, when it fact it is not adding any tangible security at all.
Let me explain the primary issues that make the finger printing of foreign travelers departing the United States problematic, without going into the political ramifications.
For starters, should there any form of exit immigrations in the United States it needs to be for all travelers, not just foreign travelers. The United States has had its share of domestic terrorists, both home grown and foreign nationals. If the U.S. Government is truly seeking to build a new layer of security to protect or national security, everyone must be treated equally.
Aside from the requirement that all travelers be finger printed, not just foreign travelers, any form of exit immigrations should not be under the Department of Transportation, it must be under the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs or Border Protection, or possibly Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Even prior to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, when the Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration oversaw the Federal Air Marshals and airport passenger screening, the agency still did not oversee Immigrations or passport control … so why now?
The answer to why exit traveler finger printing falls to the Dept. of Transportation is remarkably simple, when this bill was initially proposed it places the exit immigrations finger printing under the authority of the Dept of Homeland Security and the bill was rejected. Getting the Dept. of Homeland Security involved is a political hot potato, no one wants it in their hands, but getting the Dept of Transportation involved, even though it is not in their purview to handle such things offends no one.
Other facts that come in to play are equally as important, such as the infrastructure in airports required to set up exit immigrations fingerprinting. The vast majority of international airports in the United States are not dedicated to international travel. A flight departing for Barcelona can just as easily next to a flight leaving for Phoenix. A gate departing for Tokyo can share a seating area with a flight headed for San Francisco.
In order to set up any exit immigrations in the United States airports would need to be reconfigured. Whole terminals would need to be redesigned, gate access would be impacted and the logistics would be extremely costly. The though of altering, for example, New York’s JFK Terminal 7, housing British Airways, United Airlines, US Airways, Air Canada, Qantas (which flies to Los Angeles from JFK), Cathay Pacific and Iberia, is mind boggling. All these airlines share common spaces between their gates, and even sharing some gates.
Should mobile passenger exit fingerprinting be established, this would require multiple separate lines for the boarding process. Who would monitor the lines? You think boarding a packed Boeing 747-400 is problematic and slow now, wait and see if exit immigrations shows up at your gate in the future.
U.S. Federal Agencies have a poor track record with data sharing, especially in real time. Scanning a passengers finger prints as they leave the United States won’t likely catch a ‘fresh to the list’ wanted person, especially if the Dept of Transportation must rely on data from the Dept of Homeland Security.
Attempting to catch or track people as they leave is similar to me asking my kids to take the puppy out after the puppy has peed on the floor. If you want to stop something you have to do it before it is a problem.
Should the U.S. Government implement standard exit immigrations the same problems arise, and essentially the same data can be gather with exit passport control, and simply follow a time tested model used the world over … but be far less invasive and far less threatening to foreign travelers.
From a political standpoint, travelers from the United States have faced significant backlash and retaliation from foreign countries since the implementation of our aviation security and passport control procedures following 9/11/01. As an American many now find traveling to Canada, our friendly neighbours to the north, anything but friendly, passport control in the United Kingdom is often a battery of questions, Brazil has made acquiring a visa a costly three ring circus.
The immigration reform bill amendment requiring the fingerprinting of foreign travelers exiting the United States is a costly and ineffective blunder waiting to happen. It provides no security, improperly tasking a Federal agency, and squandering resources … all while negatively financially impacting airlines, airports and the travel industry.
If the U.S. Government wants to catch someone leaving the United States, all flight manifests are submitted to the Department of Homeland Security. The law enforcement agency seeking to detain a traveler departing the United States need only look them up, provided the system actually works in real time, which it tends to not do.
The Federal Government should focus on fixing what we already have in place before building new layers that provide a solution to a problem that didn’t exist.