FAA Bill Could Speed Development of Exit-Tracking Infrastructure

By Jessica M. Vaughan on April 14, 2016

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has offered an amendment to the pending Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill that would accelerate the implementation of a biometric entry-exit tracking system. The amendment could be voted on as early as today.

The amendment would require that in order to receive federal funding, all new airports and all existing airports making improvements must have an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to install and implement a biometric entry-exit system within two years of the act if they are a port of entry into the United States.

Exit tracking is needed for several reasons. First, the government needs to know which foreign visitors have failed to return home when their authorized stay has expired, especially if they are travelers who might be a threat to national security. The government also needs the ability to detect and intercept certain travelers before they can depart, for example if they are wanted fugitives.

Equally important, the government needs to have reliable data on which categories of travelers tend to overstay and the countries they have come from so that it can adjust visa issuance policies as needed, or reconsider a country's eligibility for the Visa Waiver Program.

The overstay problem is huge. In 2015, approximately 500,000 people with short-term business or visitor visas or visa waivers overstayed, according to a recent DHS report. The vast majority of these overstayers have joined the illegal alien population. The DHS report did not attempt to count overstays in other visa categories such as students, guest workers, and exchange visitors; nor did it include most Mexican and Canadian visitors. (There is no biometric entry tracking of Mexicans and Canadians to start with.)

Sessions' amendment addresses one perennial excuse for not moving forward on exit tracking. For years, the travel industry in general, and airport owners and operators in particular, have resisted forward movement on installing exit controls on the grounds that U.S. airports are not set up for it (just as they resisted implementation of the successful biometric entry screening). Deputy Assistant Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) John Wagner testified recently before the Senate that the greatest barrier to implementation "is the infrastructure. Our ports of entry were not built for exit processing. Unlike for arrivals, there's no exclusive and dedicated space for departure controls, so where the biometric collection takes place is critical."

But if funding for airport improvements and new airports were to be made contingent on agreeing to incorporate departure controls, then at last we might see some progress on the infrastructure issue.

The FAA funding that would be used for leverage is significant. In 2015, the FAA gave out $3.2 billion for airport projects in 58 states and territories. These grants typically cover 75 to 95 percent of the cost of airport improvements. The source of the money is primarily user fees from airline tickets and fuel taxes — i.e. the traveling public.

Key industry groups have supported the general approach of the Senate version of the reauthorization bill. The head of the National Business Aviation Association said the bill "retains a focus on the reality that the nation's airports and airspace operate in the public interest, and should serve the public, including all aviation stakeholders, as well as all citizens and communities."

So true. This measure will help ensure that public money that pays for airport improvements will help facilitate the realization of this vital immigration enforcement component.