If the newest version of President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from six majority-Muslim nations is fully implemented, it could force non-U.S. citizens to go through one more security line at airports. According to a top airport expert, the order would likely require all non-citizens to get fingerprinted and have their pictures taken before boarding flights from the U.S. to other countries—one more airport hassle.
That’s because a largely overlooked provision of the new executive order requires the full implementation of a biometric entry-exit system.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress passed legislation requiring a system that gathered biometric data on everyone traveling in and out of the U.S. Biometric data can come from photos, fingerprints, retinal scans, or other metrics. But that law obviously wasn’t fully implemented; customs officials gather biometric data when foreigners enter the country, but not when they leave. Part of the reason for that is full implementation would likely have been costly, time-consuming, and inconvenient, particularly for airports. As recently as 2015, Customs and Border Protection officials tested out biometric gathering at major U.S. airports, but the agency still hasn’t implemented it nationwide.
But immigration restrictionists—including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and top Trump policy adviser Stephen Miller—have long pushed for a biometric entry-exit tracking system. They argue that without it, the government will have no way of knowing which travelers have overstayed their visas. Restrictionist groups, including the Center for Immigration Studies, argue that fully implementing a biometric entry-exit tracking system is key to enforcing immigration laws.
But according to Gary Leff, an airline industry expert, such a system could also be very expensive and very inconvenient.
Section 8 of the president’s new travel ban executive order requires the secretary of Homeland Security to “expedite the completion and implementation of a biometric entry-exit tracking system for in-scope travelers to the United States, as recommended by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.”
So who exactly is an “in-scope traveler”? A 2016 report from the Department of Homeland Security on biometry entry-exit tracking said the term referred to all non-U.S. citizens between the age of 14 and 79, with a few exceptions (PDF).
Leff said it’s a safe guess that the president’s executive order uses the term in the same way: to refer to anyone traveling in or out of the U.S. who isn’t a citizen.
For all of those people, the president’s order could make travel tougher. That’s because, according to Leff, a biometric exit system would require that all non-citizens go through one more security line before boarding planes leaving the U.S. for other countries. That’s how these systems work in other nations that have them, he noted. The Department of Homeland Security would have to have staffers at every international airport in the U.S. gathering biometric data on the hundred thousand (or more) non-citizens who fly in and out of the U.S. every day. And those lines could get long.
Leff added that the situation could be particularly onerous for non-citizen travelers who have to catch connecting flights. If a non-citizen got on a plane at a small regional airport and then connected to a flight out of the U.S. at an international airport, that person would likely have to go out of security, then go through a biometric screening line, and then go back through security, all before catching his or her connection.
As a result, non-citizen international travelers leaving the U.S. may have to allow a significant amount of additional time to make their connections in the U.S.—all so they could stand in line and get fingerprinted.
Besides inconveniencing international travelers, these biometric exit tracking set-ups would also take up valuable airport real estate. And the executive order didn’t make it clear if airports themselves or the federal government—meaning taxpayers—would have to shoulder those costs.
“Just the biometric scanners and staffing is going to be billions of dollars,” said Leff.
He said a biometric entry-exit tracking system could seem like a major symbolic infringement on people’s rights to leave the country.
“I’m attached to the idea that we care about certain freedoms,” he said. “It rubs me the wrong way.
“To a large extent we already ask permission to travel,” he said. “So it’s for me, I think, more symbolic than anything else. But we want to be able to come and go as we please, because freedom.”