Wall Street Journal
By Lauren Meckler and Susan Carey
June 19, 2017
After years of delay, the federal government says it has developed a way to reliably track foreigners when they depart the U.S., at least by airplane, and plans to install cameras that would photograph all passengers just before they board international flights.
But there’s a big hitch: The government wants airlines to operate the cameras, saying the cost would be “astronomical” if border agents had to staff every international departure gate. Airline officials argue this is a national security function that should be shouldered by the government, not private companies.
“Right now, there is no benefit to us. We’re not interested in adding another 10 minutes to the boarding process,” one airline official said.
Disputes such as this one help explain why it has taken more than two decades for the federal government to create a system to track and eventually catch people who enter the U.S. legally and then stay past their dates of departure. Congress has repeatedly ordered an exit-tracking system, and President Donald Trump included a fresh mandate to get the system running in an executive order.
It’s a rare immigration initiative with bipartisan support. A biometric system would serve as a defense against terrorism, making it harder for someone to leave or remain in the country without detection. It also draws attention to people who have overstayed their visas and remain in the country illegally.
“We’re out of time and we’re out of excuses,” John Wagner, who runs the program for the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection agency, told a House committee last month. “I understand your frustration with this.”
The idea for a tracking system took on urgency after the 2001 terror attacks, when it was discovered that several of the terrorists were living in the U.S. on expired visas. Since 2004, Congress has directed use of biometric data—unique physical identifiers such as fingerprints or photos—to ensure people are who they say they are.
The government succeeded in creating a biometric system for people entering the U.S., with foreigners fingerprinted and photographed upon entry. The exit part has proved much tougher.
Administration officials say they still have no plan for tracking people who leave the country by simply driving into Mexico or Canada, which represents the vast majority of visitor exits.
DHS does track departures by air and sea, using biographic information off manifests supplied by airlines and shipping lines. For the past two years, the agency has used this information to report that hundreds of thousands of visitors have overstayed their visas.
But that system doesn’t guard against someone who remains in the country but wants authorities to think he has left, and has someone falsely exit using his passport, or someone who leaves using another person’s passport.
U.S. airports aren’t set up for someone to “check out” of the country. Since security checkpoints are located well before a person boards a plane, it would be easy for a traveler to be counted as departing and then simply walk out of the airport. Airport gates are crowded spots, and building a new checkpoint at every gate was long seen as a daunting task.
DHS ran several pilot programs at large airports. A breakthrough occurred when the agency realized it could use a small, mounted camera to scan people’s faces quickly at the boarding gate, Mr. Wagner said. Those images are then compared with photos in a database of travelers airlines expect to be on a given flight. If there’s a match, the government can be confident that person has left the U.S.
Mr. Wagner told a congressional committee last month that the government will need airlines to actually run the cameras. If the Customs and Border Protection agency has to station an agent at every gate, he said, the cost would be “astronomical” because it would require hiring thousands of new agents.
He didn’t offer a cost estimate but said in an interview that it would run well over the $100 million generated in fees each year that are earmarked for this program.
“We can’t do this without the airlines,” he said.
He argued that this doesn’t impose a burden on airlines because the photographs provide a higher degree of certainty of one’s identity than passports do, so gate agents won’t have to check passports anymore.
Airline officials dispute that, saying agents will still need to check passports because they are responsible for ensuring that people aren’t flown to other countries without proper identification. Having gate agents take the photos also could slow down boarding, they added.
But industry officials say airlines have been willing to help when it benefits both sides, pointing to industry funding for passport-reading kiosks in 49 airports that speed passengers as they arrive into the U.S.
Mr. Wagner replied that the agency hopes to persuade airlines that this program is also in their interest. But even if they remain unconvinced, DHS has to put the system in place. “Congress has been pretty clear about the requirement,” he said.
And he said DHS could compel airlines to cooperate. If his agency has to run the cameras, Mr. Wagner said, it might have to restrict the number of airports or gates that may be used for international flights to keep costs reasonable.
“That’s an option that is out there,” he said. “We have the authority to do that.”
Airline officials declined to comment on that assertion. But several privately dismissed the threat as unrealistic and politically untenable.
Despite these tensions, the major carriers say they support the agency’s commitment to technology and innovation and are participating in test programs for the new cameras this summer. Some carriers, particularly Delta Air Lines Inc., are experimenting with their own biometric solutions to ease passengers’ gauntlet of check-in steps.
American Airlines Group Inc., plans a test at one gate at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Delta has been running a pilot for more than a year in Atlanta and recently launched another at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. United Continental Holdings Inc. is expected to run a pilot at one of its hubs as well. Customs officials are running the cameras during these tests.
JetBlue Airways Corp. , which just launched a trial in Boston, for one, appears enthusiastic about the potential for biometric identification replacing existing systems.
“Longer term you could create a seamless experience for the customer,” said Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue executive vice president of customer experience. The goal: passengers could drop their bags, go through security without showing identification or a boarding pass and then board the plane.
Write to Laura Meckler at email@example.com and Susan Carey at firstname.lastname@example.org
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