Government Unveils New Airport Exit Process for Foreign Visitors

March 31, 2005
Fifteen U.S. international airports are now participating in a pilot project, that requires foreign visitors to be fingerprinted and photographed when exiting the country.

ATLANTA (AP) -- Besides keeping an eye on her granddaughter, Monica Chazaro had one more task on Thursday before she could board a plane to return home to Mexico: She had to be fingerprinted and photographed.

With her granddaughter safely next to her, Chazaro carefully inserted her passport into an airport kiosk, placed her index fingers on a scanner and calmly waited for the kiosk to take her picture.

It's part of a pilot project of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to keep better track of foreign visitors leaving the country.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the latest of 15 U.S. international airports and seaports that are participating in the project. The Atlanta airport started fingerprinting exiting foreigners on Wednesday. Other airports have been using the system since January 2004.

The new exit procedure was needed because although the government collected similar data on foreigners who entered the United States, there was no quick data on when they left the country, said Robert Mocny, deputy director of the US-VISIT program.

Previously, the government relied on a very low-tech method of keeping track of departing foreigners: a paper form that airlines mailed back to the government in bulk after foreign visitors filled them out.

''Now there is a real-time method,'' Mocny said.

The US-VISIT program was unveiled as one of the methods of keeping track of foreigners who enter the United States in the post-Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack era. The government has hailed the first phase of the program - photographing and fingerprinting foreign visitors - as a success, as it has kept more than 500 suspected criminals and immigration violators from entering the U.S., Mocny said.

More than 23 million foreign visitors have been processed by US-VISIT at 115 airports, 15 seaports and at 50 of the country's busiest border crossings.

''We have a new tool to help catch those people coming to the United States to do harm,'' Mocny said of the new security measure.

As a result, Homeland Security officials have high hopes that the exit phase of the US-VISIT program will be equally successful in preventing people wanted by authorities from freely leaving the United States. In Dallas, the new exit system led to the arrest of a suspected sex offender, Mocny said.

The pilot exit procedures, which started in January 2004 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and at the Miami International Cruise Line Terminal, are used at two California seaports in San Pedro and Long Beach.

The exit system also is used at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and at airports in Denver, Detroit, Newark, N.J., Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco and Marin, Calif.

Officials hope to be able to put the new exit procedures in place at more international airports and seaports by the end of the year. Until then, Homeland Security officials are working to make sure the new data collection system does not interfere with airlines' departure times.

In addition, until the exit system is in place at all U.S. international airports and other ports of entry, officials will not arrest any foreigner who refuses to be fingerprinted prior to leaving the country but will be politely reminded that complying is a U.S. government requirement, Mocny said.

US-VISIT officials, sensitive to perceptions of new Homeland Security procedures, also are conducting surveys to make sure that foreigners understand why they are being fingerprinted and are having their personal information collected, Mocny said.

''As we invest the resources in this new technology, it's important to make sure people are comfortable with using it,'' he added.

Back at the Atlanta airport's Terminal E, Chazaro shrugs when asked her feelings about the new procedure.

''It's no problem,'' she said. ''I'm comfortable to use it and I'm going home.''