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Cost Disputes Could Derail Plans To Track Foreigners In US Airports

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The federal government has developed a system to track foreigners leaving the country through U.S. airports, but disputes with airlines may prevent the timely application of the technology.

The new tracking system would rely on photographs taken of all passengers boarding international flights at their departure gate, allowing authorities to know with certainty whether a foreigner has left the country and where they went.

After nearly two decades spent developing technology to track individuals who enter the U.S. legally and then stay past their legal departure date, and repeated congressional mandates demanding an exit tracking system, the federal government has met resistance from airlines who don’t see the benefit of implementing it.

“Right now, there is no benefit to us. We’re not interested in adding another 10 minutes to the boarding process,” one airline official told the Wall Street Journal in Monday article.

John Wagner, who heads the program for the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Customs and Border Protection agency told a congressional committee last month that DHS needs to rely on airlines to run the cameras in order to avoid an “astronomical” cost to taxpayers.

“We’re out of time and we’re out of excuses,” Wagner said. “We can’t do this without the airlines.”

Wagner also disputed the claim that the new system will inconvenience airlines, pointing out that the new technology would eliminate the necessity of checking passports.

Airline officials denied the technology would allow them to stop checking passports, saying they still have a responsibility to make sure passengers aren’t flown into other countries without identification.

The exit tracking system, which has received bipartisan support, would prevent individuals from remaining in the country illegally by having someone else exit using their passport. It would also prevent people from leaving the country undetected by using someone else’s passport.

In the past two years hundreds of thousands of people have overstayed their visas. This problem received significant congressional attention after the September 11 attacks when it was discovered several of the hijackers were in the country on expired visas.

The DHS has run a number of exit tracking pilot programs at various airports around the country. The central obstacle the department faced was determining a method to make sure individuals reported as having departed the country actually boarded the flights they were supposed to be on.

There is ample opportunity for someone to get through security and then simply leave the airport, since travelers pass through airport security checkpoints well before they reach their departure gate. The DHS successfully navigated this obstacle by developing a plan in which cameras are installed in departure gates. The cameras would scan passengers faces directly prior to boarding, the system would then cross references the images with the list of passengers who are supposed to be on the flight, confirming the individual boarded their flight.

Wagner explained that he hopes airlines will cooperate in implementing the technology but said the DHS must implement the programs with or without their cooperation. “Congress has been pretty clear about the requirement,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

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