There is a tendency for us as Americans to think that improving the status of homeland security means deploying more Border Patrol Agents equipped with better technology, and better trained TSA screeners with better technology and high tech passports that aren’t subject to fraudulent tampering. In my view, we all too often overlook the fact that the private sector is regulated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and that advancements in homeland security can actually come from the prudent regulation of those industries involved in the legitimate commerce – the very lifeblood of our nation.
However, there are instances when the DHS uses its regulatory authorities to advance security in a way that is flat wrong. Requiring airlines to play a pivotal role in US VISIT EXIT is one such example. DHS recently issued the US VISIT EXIT proposed rulemaking which makes little sense and flies in the face of the successful pilot program the Department has undertaken. Let’s consider for a moment what’s at stake.
Visa overstays are an example of potential terrorist behavior – more than a few of the 9/11 terrorists were, in fact, visa overstays. The Federal government is correct in its desire to know about all visa overstays right away and to conduct risk assessments on them and on all foreign nationals entering the country. There is no question this function should be implemented by Federal employees and not through heavy regulation of the private sector. Yet, this is precisely what DHS intends to do by requiring airlines – already reeling from high fuel prices – to collect biometrics on foreign nationals exiting the country at the ticket counter requiring costly reconfiguration. In addition, it flies in the face of where the airlines have been moving: reducing the need for passengers to come to the ticket counter at all.
DHS has conducted pilot programs using contract employees and kiosks in airport concourses to perform this function. It’s worked well. When DHS enforced the requirement for visitors to visit the US VISIT EXIT kiosk (a relatively simple task for the airlines to support), guess what occurred? DHS found significant numbers of visa overstays. The pilots worked. They showed the right way to do this job – and it is a DHS job to do. This approach doesn’t require costly disruption at airline ticket counters that will surely impact domestic travelers as well as foreign nationals.
Here is another thing to keep in mind. The failure of DHS to get the US VISIT EXIT program fully in place (air exit is a piece of it and doesn’t eliminate the entire threat) has wasted untold amounts of law enforcement resources. Bear in mind that US VISIT ENTRY advises the Federal government of every foreign national entering the country. Some of those people are “persons of interest” to various law enforcement and intelligence agencies. If these agencies don’t have the ability to know when these “persons of interest” leave the country, then they may well be wasting resources looking for people who are no longer here.
At the end of the day, this is a critical responsibility that should not be handled as a matter of private sector regulation any more than screening of passengers should have been on September 11, 2001.