WASHINGTON – A federal program that fingerprints foreigners as they leave Baltimore/Washington International Airport is working fine and could serve as a model for the rest of the country, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger said Thursday.
The Cockeysville Democrat told the House Government Reform Committee that he has heard no serious complaints about the extra screening of foreign travelers, despite fears that it would cause business travelers and others to avoid BWI.
“I have heard nothing but positive feedback,” Ruppersberger said.
But critics said it is still too early to pass judgment on the exit checks, which the Department of Homeland Security wants to expand nationwide by 2005.
“I think it needs to be tested in a whole bunch of airports,” said David Plavin, president of Airports Council International, after Thursday’s hearing. “The BWI test is only going to tell you how well it works at BWI and nowhere else.”
Officials at BWI declined comment on the program, referring calls to Customs officials, who could not be reached Thursday evening.
Since Jan. 5, foreigners from countries that require visas to travel to the United States have been fingerprinted and photographed when the arrive at U.S. airports. The Department of Homeland Security uses that information to check for criminals and wanted terrorists.
BWI is the first airport to check those same foreigners on their way out of the country. Before they board a plane at BWI, foreign travelers from the targeted countries are supposed to stop by a special kiosk where their visas are scanned and their fingerprints are compared to those taken when they entered the country.
The exit procedure confirms their identity and makes sure they are complying with immigration regulations and have not overstayed their visas.
But Plavin, whose organization represents airports here and abroad, said the system being tested at BWI has yet to confront the heavy summer traffic volumes that will show how it works in a busy airport.
Because there is currently no penalty for skipping the exit kiosk, Plavin said there is also no way to tell how many foreigners simply dodge it altogether. This is especially true for travelers connecting through the airport, Plavin said.
And even if the system works well in Baltimore, it may not translate to other airports, Plavin said.
A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union said that organization has been cool to the program to check incoming travelers, the so-called US-VISIT program, since the beginning. But Charlie Mitchell, the spokesman, said the ACLU has more questions than pointed criticism about the program.
As for the exit checks, Mitchell questioned what would happen if a foreigner accidentally missed the exit kiosk or failed go through because he did not know he needed to.
“We want to make sure that the directions are clear so they don’t miss some bureaucratic process that keeps them out of the country in the future,” Mitchell said.
But while the ACLU has doubts, Homeland Security Secretary Asa Hutchinson said Thursday that US-VISIT is the “greatest security advance in three decades” that does not sacrifice the flow of legitimate travel through the United States.
He said a drug dealer who had entered the country more than 60 times in the past four years using different names and dates of birth was captured recently and a woman who was wanted in Maryland since 1994 for theft was also nabbed.
“This will serve as a deterrent as word goes out that we have this technology,” Hutchinson told the committee.
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