BiometricsGrowing opposition to fingerprinting foreign visitors to U.S.

Published 3 July 2008

Legislators support airline industry’s contention that forcing them to fingerprint foreign visitors to the United States would ruin them financially; airlines say that fingerprinting 33 million visitors a year would cost $12 billion over 10 years

Key members of Congress are siding with the airline industry and moving to block the administration from forcing airlines to take fingerprints of foreign visitors before they fly home. The opposition is setting up a clash over a final Bush administration effort to tighten security and immigration by keeping better track of when visitors fly out of the country. U.S. and foreign airlines say fingerprinting 33 million visitors a year would devastate them financially, costing $12 billion over 10 years, at a time when soaring fuel prices have helped put some airlines out of business and forced others to cut flights. “U.S. airlines obviously cannot bear the staggering additional costs,” the Air Transport Association, which represents major domestic carriers, wrote last week.

The House plans to vote this month on a measure barring DHS from requiring airlines to take fingerprints until the department tests a fingerprint system with airlines. The House Appropriations Committee approved the measure last week as part of a bill funding the department for 2009. House Homeland Security Committee chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi) plans to hold a hearing this month to explore alternatives such as setting up government-run fingerprint kiosks near airport checkpoints. Fingerprinting departing foreigners, which Congress has mandated, should be done by the department, not the private sector, Thompson said. “A lot of us are concerned that they are now trying to pass off responsibility,” Thompson said. Thompson questioned the legality of forcing airlines to take fingerprints and said border and immigration security “have always been federal responsibilities.”

The department fingerprints visitors as they arrive and tracks their departures using paper forms that are sometimes inaccurate. Others opposing the department’s plan include Germany and the United Kingdom, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the Travel Industry Association. “This global opposition will hopefully provide a wake-up call to the department,” said Steve Lott of the International Air Transport Association, which represents 240 airlines. DHS policy chief Stewart Baker said the department “is open to being persuaded there is some other more effective and efficient way” to take the fingerprints.