Lawmakers from both parties gave a mixed reaction today to a proposed rule from the Homeland Security Department that will soon require the nation’s airlines to fingerprint foreigners before they fly out of the country. Several lawmakers said a system is needed to verify when foreigners leave the United States but expressed concern about the financial burden on the airlines. “I respectfully disagree with Homeland Security,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member John Mica. Homeland Security is on a collision course with the airlines over the proposed rule, which is expected to go into effect in January as part of the US VISIT program. Department officials said today the government will be prepared to levy fines on airlines that do not comply. “It is clearly a government function to record who’s coming in and who’s leaving the country and it couldn’t come at a worst time for the airlines,” Mica said.
The airlines staunchly oppose the mandate, saying it should be done by the government and will cost them billions of dollars to implement. Mica said he will consult with House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar to determine if the panel will take any action. Congress passed a 2004 law requiring the Homeland Security Department to implement a system that uses biometrics, such as fingerprints, to verify when foreigners leave the country. A 2007 law requires the system to be in place by June 2009. But Congress did not specify that the airlines must take fingerprints. “Any uncertainty about who is entering and leaving our country is an unacceptable risk that must be addressed appropriately,” said House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson. “DHS must further develop this proposed rule by collaborating with its partners to minimize their concerns.”
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman and ranking member Susan Collins expressed concerns. “The proposed rule DHS releases today imposes on the airline industry the lion’s share of the responsibility and the costs for implementing a biometric exit system,” Lieberman said. “Yet the department’s analysis does not make a compelling case that requiring collection of information by air carriers will more effectively bolster our enforcement and security efforts. We must consider carefully whether this mission should instead be carried out by DHS.” Collins said tracking foreigners exiting the country is crucial because travelers who overstay their visas could be security risks. “Nevertheless, efforts to make the nation’s borders more secure must also facilitate legitimate trade and travel,” she added. “While the department has taken some steps to provide flexibility to airlines that may be forced to shoulder the burden of implementing this important program, I urge [DHS] to continue working with the private sector to develop common-sense solutions to this security challenge.”
Senate Commerce Chairman Daniel Inouye added that he was “hopeful the administration is committed to considering options that will limit the financial impact of this initiative on the nation’s air carriers to the greatest degree possible.” Homeland Security officials note that the airlines already provide biographical information to the department as foreigners enter and leave the country. They estimate the mandate will cost the airlines about $2.7 billion over 10 years. But they said the Bush administration does not plan to provide the airlines any financial assistance to implement it.
This article appears in the April 26, 2008, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.