Sales: Points to Both Sides in Exit System Debate

Arguments by both the government and the airline industry in the debate over how best to implement an effective exit system to track foreign visitors are valid, says Professor Nathan Sales.

Concern over border security and immigration controls has prompted the government to examine and implement comprehensive systems to track foreign nationals while visiting the U.S. A proposed biometric exit system to complement the existing fingerprint tracking system, and who will be responsible for its cost and implementation, has been at the center of the controversy, with the government and the airlines at odds over it.

"DHS says, 'Look, our airports are configured this way. We have to use existing processes and existing physical plans. The airlines control that, so we should use that.' Understandable," Sales told trade publication FCW.COM. "The airlines -- also understandably -- say, 'This is a border security function and a responsibility of the government. We shouldn't be doing the government's work for it, and not only that...our industry is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. We can't afford to absorb $3 billion or $12 billion worth of additional costs.'"

Sales was the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) deputy assistant secretary for policy development from 2006 to 2007 and led efforts to expand the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of authorized countries to travel to the U.S. for limited periods of time without obtaining a visa.

No exit, FCW.COM, December 8, 2008. By Ben Bain.


"The tests should allow DHS to move beyond the current logjam over who collects departing passengers’ data, but the time needed to plan and conduct them means the department probably will not meet a June 30, 2009, deadline for deploying the exit system. That in turn means DHS might lose, if only temporarily, some authority to expand the Visa Waiver Program.

"The program allows citizens of authorized countries — those whose refusal rate for nonimmigrant visas is below 3 percent — to travel to the United States for as long as 90 days without obtaining a visa. In 2007, Congress gave DHS the authority to accept countries into the program whose rejection rate was more than 3 percent, but less than 10 percent.

"Many lawmakers consider the exit system to be a critical part of ensuring that the Visa Waiver Program is secure. Some members of Congress opposed the program’s expansion last month to include seven additional countries.

"In a statement, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called the Visa Waiver Program the country’s Achilles’ heel and said she planned to introduce legislation in the next congressional session aimed at strengthening the program’s security.

“'We have worked to mitigate the risks of the Visa Waiver Program for years,' she wrote in an October letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff co-signed by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). 'A critical component to protecting our nation and its people is a fully operational biometric exit system at our ports of entry.'

"However, Sales said there is policy disagreement over whether taking somebody’s fingerprints adds a sufficient degree of reliability to justify the additional costs."

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