WASHINGTON – Airline and cruise ship companies will be required to fingerprint foreign nationals leaving the United States under a controversial Department of Homeland Security proposal released Tuesday.
Currently, U.S. government agents collect visitors’ fingerprints as they enter the U.S., and it was long expected that government agents — and not private sector employees — would collect the fingerprints when the program expands to include people leaving the country.
But Tuesday’s proposal delegates the fingerprinting job to the airlines and cruise lines, which would be required to submit the prints and travel information to the U.S. government within 24 hours. The proposal sparked immediate opposition by the airlines and privacy groups.
Both groups said the government was “outsourcing” security, and the airlines raised the specter that the change would lead to long lines at airport counters.
“This is a border security issue. Why would they turn it over to the private sector?” said Melissa Ngo of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy group.
“From everything that I had seen, I had believed that the fingerprint gathering and transmission would be done by the federal government,” Ngo said. “This is the first I’ve heard of them outsourcing it to the airlines and the cruise ships.”
Airlines have “spent the last four years using technology to respond to travelers’ desire for self-service,” said Giovanni Bisignani, director general and CEO of the International Air Transport Association, which represents some 240 U.S. and international airlines. “Sending passengers back into counter queues is a big step backward,” he said.
“It is like the Internal Revenue Service outsourcing tax collection to accountants around the world,” said IATA spokesman Steve Lott.
A DHS official, who spoke to CNN before the official announcement of the proposal, said the regulations, to be published in the Federal Register, would safeguard the privacy and civil rights of travelers and represents a “quantum leap” in America’s border security.
The proposal is the latest installment in DHS’s US-VISIT program, a post-September 11 program designed to keep track of visitors to the United States. The 9/11 Commission called for the program, and Congress has endorsed it.
Under US-VISIT, homeland security agents fingerprint foreign nationals entering the United States at all air, land and sea borders. And DHS is under a June 2009 congressional deadline to fingerprint visitors departing the U.S.
Fingerprinting arriving visitors helps ensure that known terrorists are not entering the country, DHS says. Fingerprinting departing visitors lets DHS know if visitors have overstayed their visas — information that can be used if those same people seek to return to the U.S.
If DHS fails to meet the 2009 deadline, Congress has threatened to start dismantling the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of 27 countries to enter the U.S. without obtaining visas.
IATA spokesman Lott said Tuesday the government should operate the program and pay for its estimated $3.5 billion cost over the next 10 years.
“We are not an industry that is flush with cash and has strong balance sheets where we can support this function,” says Lott.
The DHS official estimates the operational costs for the airline and cruise ship industries would be $2.7 billion over 10 years and says the government would pay part of those costs. But Lott of IATA says even that is too much given the economic strain on the aviation industry created by high fuel costs.
The DHS official says that pilot programs indicated it would cost even more to have the government collect the fingerprints, because the airlines already have infrastructure in place to process departing passengers. “We wouldn’t have put forward this proposal if we didn’t think it was the most prudent way forward,” the DHS official said.
IATA says having airlines collect fingerprints would lengthen passenger lines at ticket counters and may raise privacy issues with foreign citizens and governments. DHS counters that it will work with the airlines to ensure civil liberties and privacy are protected.
The aviation industry and others will have 60 days to comment on the proposed rule before it is finalized. “If it doesn’t happen it will be because the airlines killed it, not because there wasn’t a reasonable alternative for getting this done,” the DHS official said.