Canada has launched a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign against a push by Donald Trump to subject all visitors to the United States to biometric screening – such as finger-printing, retina scans or facial recognition tests – upon both entry and exit.
The U.S. President’s call for the stepped-up use of such technology, meant to monitor whether non-Americans are staying in the country longer than permitted, was issued in last Friday’s executive order on immigration, but has mostly flown under the public radar amid controversy around a ban on travellers from seven predominantly Muslim-majority countries.
Among Canadian officials, however, it has sparked concerns of massive slow-downs in border traffic of both people and goods, particularly at land crossings – prompting Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to raise the issue during a phone call this week with John Kelly, the new U.S. Homeland Security Secretary, Mr. Goodale’s office confirmed.
That conversation appears to have been the start of an ongoing effort by Ottawa to head off the screening plan during a 100-day period in which Mr. Kelly has been tasked – per the executive order – with “expedit[ing] the completion and implementation of a biometric entry-exit tracking system for all travellers to the United States” and reporting back to the President on his progress.
The lobbying effort will likely be aimed not just at Mr. Kelly and other members of Mr. Trump’s administration but also at members of Congress, who would need to approve large related expenditures in order for implementation to proceed.
In addition to implementation costs and logistical challenges – which would include remodelling airports to accommodate exit screening by the U.S., and reconfiguring land border crossings – Canada can be expected to point to potentially devastating impacts for industries that rely on a quick flow of people and goods across the border. A senior Canadian official expressed optimism that Canada will be joined in making that case by U.S. jurisdictions that would stand to suffer – ranging from border states whose economies are closely integrated with Canada’s to tourism-reliant states such as Florida.
Such arguments against biometric entry-exit screening have proven persuasive in the past. As implied by the executive order’s wording, the proposal to biometrically register all non-Americans who enter and exit the U.S. is not new. It has in theory been government policy since its inclusion in an immigration bill signed by Bill Clinton in 1996. Its implementation was among the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, and Congress has passed several laws mandating it. But neither presidential administrations nor legislators have followed through on it, with appropriations for implementation defeated or removed from legislation when they have intermittently been introduced.
Instead, the U.S. has settled for biometric screening only of some visitors entering the country, primarily at airports and sea ports – and, notably, not at major land crossings with Canada. To the extent it has monitored who is exiting, other than a few biometric pilot projects, it has been through other measures – including an agreement with Canada, struck in 2011, in which the two countries inform each other when visitors return home.
Ottawa appears optimistic that the success of that recent data-sharing will help it make the case that Canadians should be exempted from any new entry-exit measures. But it is also struggling with unpredictability of a new presidential administration that has thus far displayed very different priorities from any previous one.
While Mr. Trump called for exit-entry biometric screening during last year’s campaign, it is not known how strongly he feels about the matter and how much he might try to compel the Republicans’ congressional and Senate majorities to push through related measures. But it has previously been identified as a top priority by Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Senator who is set to be confirmed as Attorney-General, and who is already considered to be one of the most influential members of Mr. Trump’s administration.
As the Senate’s leading proponent of tougher immigration laws, Mr. Sessions tried unsuccessfully on multiple occasions to advance biometric screening through legislation. In an interview last year with Breitbart News, the right-wing populist outlet that was run by Mr. Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, Mr. Sessions expressed frustration with the U.S. government’s “shocking” failure to implement a system that he argued would cut down on hundreds of thousands of annual overstays and protect the U.S from terrorists.
In that interview, Mr. Sessions argued that the system could be introduced easily and virtually immediately, blaming “special interest interference and bureaucratic dragging of feet and pressure from activist groups and business groups” for blocking it.
Along with other advocates of the entry-exit biometrics, Mr. Sessions appeared to be more focused on visitors arriving from overseas and over the southern border with Mexico than with Canadians. But in recent background conversations, Canadian officials have identified the challenge of avoiding Canada being inadvertently hurt by Mr. Trump’s trade and other policies aimed primarily at other countries.