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Big Brother sees you off: Foreigners in US to be fingerprinted upon leaving country

Published time: May 22, 2013 11:49
AFP Photo / Tiziana Fabi

AFP Photo / Tiziana Fabi

Travelers visiting the US may have to prepare for more hassles at customs: All foreign nationals leaving the country at 30 airports must have their fingerprints taken, according to a new amendment to a planned immigration reform bill.

The amendment, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in a 13-5 vote, will see departure terminals at major US airports – including JFK, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty – equipped with high-tech systems for fingerprinting foreign nationals and scanning their passports and visas.

Introducing the new law will take time, as 10 of the biggest US airports – accounting for 70 percent of international travel – will have the immigration tracking system installed within two years; the 20 other airports will have six years to refurbish their departure areas.

Currently, foreigners are only required to submit their fingerprints when entering the United States.

Not tracking exits is “a hole in the system,” said Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), one of the amendment’s proponents.  "Biometric data provides the government with certainty that travelers (and not just their travel documents) have or have not left the country," the Senator’s office said in a statement, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

The new departure procedure is being introduced in order to prevent foreigners from overstaying their visas. Overstays have become a pressing issue in the US – 40 percent of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants arrived through now-expired visas.

Defendants Dias Kadyrbayev (L) and Azamat Tazhayakov are pictured in a courtroom sketch, appearing in front of Federal Magistrate Marianne Bowler at the John Joseph Moakley United States Federal Courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts May 1, 2013.(Reuters / Jane Flavell Collins)

Advocates for the provision cite the recent high-profile case of Azamat Tazhayakov. A Kazakhstani, Tazhayakov was a friend of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a Boston Marathon bombing suspect, and was charged with obstruction of justice after he allegedly attempted to dispose of possessions belonging to Tsarnaev. Tazhayakov reportedly entered the United States in January on an invalid visa.

However, human rights activists have voiced concerns about “the effect it will have on peoples' privacy rights as well as concerns about selective enforcement ,” Jacqueline Esposito of the New York Immigration Coalition said in an interview with news channel NY1.

We don't want to see a situation where only people from particular countries may be fingerprinted or other racial profiling taking place ," Esposito added.

An earlier proposal by House Republicans suggested that all of the country’s air, sea and land ports should use biometric tracking for foreigners leaving the country. Apart from fingerprinting, the proposed tracking would have included facial recognition and iris scans. The plan, with an estimated cost of $25 billion, was eventually rejected as too expensive.

The immigration reform bill was approved on Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, much to the satisfaction of President Obama, who had declared the bill a second-term priority. Apart from tightening border controls, it also contains a new program for low-skilled foreign labor, and makes it easier for US firms to hire programmers and engineers from abroad, raising the annual limit of visas for these professions from 65,000 to 180,000. The full Senate will vote on the sweeping legislation next month.