By Maria Jose Subiria
Federal security officials hope new procedures being tested at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport will better assist in preventing foreign criminals, and immigration violators, from fleeing the country.
The Department of Homeland Security began testing its biometric exit procedure - which includes the collection of electronic fingerprints from non-U.S. citizens - at Hartsfield-Jackson, and the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, on May 28 as part of its US-VISIT program.
"Collecting biometrics allows us to determine faster and more accurately, whether non-U.S. citizens have departed the United States on time, or remained in the country illegally," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement Monday. "The pilot programs in Atlanta and Detroit will help us determine, and develop standard procedures for use at airports across the country to expedite legitimate travel, and enhance our nation's security."
According to Anna Hinken, director of outreach and public liaison for the US-VISIT program, Transportation Security Administration officers in Atlanta's airport, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in Detroit, will conduct biometric exit procedures as part of the tests for a total of 35 days. TSA officers will conduct tests at the main security checkpoint area at Hartsfield-Jackson, and Customs officials will administer the checks at Detroit's airport boarding gates.
Jon Allen, southeast public affairs manager for the TSA, said 130 transportation security officers were trained on the new procedures within a week's time.
"We have not seen any kind of problems with it," said Allen. "It's really been more procedural ... but all of that information will be considered as it is evaluated."
Hinken said the US-VISIT program began in January 2004, and provided biometric identification services to border and immigration officials. She said while the exit procedure technology was effective, the process was cumbersome and abandoned in 2007.
"There weren't government officials gathering the information; there were contractors," said Hinken.
She said the previous procedure utilized a large kiosk that was inconvenient to security checkpoint areas. Now, during the $5.5 million experiment phase for the new procedure, transportation security officers are provided with a mobile scanner that allows them to check a passenger's passport and take two fingerprints, from passengers' index and middle fingers.
"When this test is complete and we have evaluated the results, US-VISIT plans to publish a Final Rule in the Federal Register, that will direct the implementation of new biometric exit procedures for non-U.S. citizens departing the United States via airports and seaports," said Hinken.
According to Homeland Security officials, non-U.S. citizens leaving the United States from all other ports of entry will continue, for now, to follow current exit procedures, which require them to return either Form I-94, for arrival departure record, or Form I-94W, for travelers in the Visa Waiver Program.
"We've stopped thousands of criminals based on biometrics alone," said Robert Mocny, director of US-VISIT for Homeland Security.