DHS to collect biometric data from green card holders

New rule that expands US VISIT program requires fingerprints and digital photos from noncitizens who are permanent residents.

The Homeland Security Department has announced plans to expand its biometric data collection program to include foreign permanent residents and refugees. Almost all noncitizens will be required to provide digital fingerprints and a photograph upon entry into the United States as of Jan. 18.

A notice in Friday's Federal Register, said expansion of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology Program (US VISIT) will include "nearly all aliens," except Canadian citizens on brief visits. Those categories include permanent residents with green cards, individuals seeking to enter on immigrant visas, and potential refugees.

The US VISIT program was developed after the Sept.11, 2001, terrorist attacks to collect fingerprints from foreign visitors and run them against the FBI's terrorist watch list and other criminal databases. Another phase of the project, to develop an exit system to track foreign nationals leaving the country, has run into repeated setbacks.

The decision to track permanent residents has drawn criticism from privacy advocates, especially since DHS has acknowledged that green card holders do not necessarily pose a greater threat than "nonimmigrants."

"It's very disappointing. These are individuals who don't deserve the indignity of being subjected to biometric capture," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program for the American Civil Liberties Union.

DHS officials said their primary reason for collecting data from permanent residents is to identify noncitizens with fraudulent documents. But Steinhardt called it a "pretext" to gathering more personal information.

"It's a mania for collecting information from individuals," he said. "It's part of a fruitless effort to match individuals who are legal permanent residents of the U.S. with various legal watch lists, which we know are fraught with error."

Anna Hinken, director of communications for US VISIT, said by expanding the program to green card holders, DHS is simply complying with its mandate to include all non-U.S. citizens in the system. Existing policy excludes Canadians on quick visits to the United States, she said.

Steinhardt said DHS should focus on finishing the exit portion of US VISIT before expanding the program.

"There's still the irony that the government keeps expanding the US VISIT program but never built the exit system that is supposed to be built," he said. "They know when people come in but don't know if they've left. Rather than expand the program to people who are lawfully residents here, they might want to consider possibility of actually building exit portion."

According to the Federal Register notice, US VISIT will gather biometric information at the 50 largest land ports, in addition to all sea and airports. The program is in transition from collecting two fingerprints to a full set of 10, a process Hinken expects will be done by the beginning of 2009. DHS is working to make US VISIT interoperable with the FBI's databases and make its biometric information available to local law enforcement officials.