The United States is launching a pilot program to collect biometric information from non-citizens who are leaving the country from American airports. The initiative is the latest post-9/11 effort to monitor and correctly identify all who come to and depart from the United States.
Since 2004, the United States has collected fingerprints and other physical identifiers - called "biometrics" - from non-citizens applying for visas and arriving at U.S. ports of entry. Screening of those leaving the United States has been far less rigorous, until now.
Robert Mocny heads the Department of Homeland Security's US-VISIT program.
"In most countries, you check out of the country [when you leave]," said Robert Mocny. "You go through some passport control. We do not have that in the United States, we never have had that. And so we are trying to implement a new system."
Beginning this week, that system will be tested at two U.S. airports: in Atlanta and Detroit. In addition to having their passports scanned, departing non-U.S. citizens will be required to place a finger over a scanner. The resulting prints will be compared with fingerprints given when the individuals applied for their U.S. visa or resident alien card. If all goes according to plan, the system will be extended to all U.S. airports and seaports next year.
Mocny says the effort is in keeping with a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. The commission urged biometric entry and exit records as the best way to confirm the identities of those traveling to the United States. Speaking at Washington's Foreign Press Center, Mocny said there is an additional benefit.
"Once a visa is issued and tied with a biometric, once a passport is issued and tied to a biometric, that passport or visa cannot be used by anybody else," he said. "There are tens of millions of lost or stolen passports that circulate the globe on the black market used by international criminals and terrorists. This [biometric verification] puts a stop to that."
But what of those leaving the United States by land to Mexico and Canada? Mocny says biometric verification will one day be extended to those border crossing points, as well. But he admits that significant logistical challenges will have to be overcome for that to occur, as most U.S. terrestrial border exits are not set up to accommodate screening of vehicular traffic.