How Technology Is Changing Immigration Lines

Smile, you’re on camera. If you ever get there.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers use facial recognition technology in their booths to screen travelers entering the United States at Miami International Airport.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers use facial recognition technology in their booths to screen travelers entering the United States at Miami International Airport.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers use facial recognition technology in their booths to screen travelers entering the United States at Miami International Airport on Feb. 27, 2018. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Air travel typically falls on a spectrum ranging from tedium to chaos, but entering the United States in recent months has often served up a uniquely painful combination of the two. Complaints abound on social media of packed arrival halls and hourslong immigration lines at major airports including O’Hare in Chicago, JFK in New York, and Dulles outside Washington, D.C.—the latter airport being so poorly situated and designed that it serves as apt homage to the damage the Dulles brothers wreaked on decades of U.S. foreign policy.

Air travel typically falls on a spectrum ranging from tedium to chaos, but entering the United States in recent months has often served up a uniquely painful combination of the two. Complaints abound on social media of packed arrival halls and hourslong immigration lines at major airports including O’Hare in Chicago, JFK in New York, and Dulles outside Washington, D.C.—the latter airport being so poorly situated and designed that it serves as apt homage to the damage the Dulles brothers wreaked on decades of U.S. foreign policy.

Part of the problem is an aggressive rebound in global travel after two years of COVID-induced nosedives. International air traffic more than doubled in 2022 compared with 2021, approaching pre-pandemic levels, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). And more people are lining up to board. The bigger problem is when they get off, in the United States at least. The long wait times, according to officials and airport industry executives, come down to a combination of surging demand, limited resources, and rapidly shifting technological needs and capabilities.

“We are still experiencing long wait times, and actually it’s ticking up again at the moment, and it is related to the number of officers available for clearing passengers,” said Matthew Cornelius, the executive vice president of the Airports Council International-North America, which represents more than 300 airports across the United States and Canada. “That sort of is a root-cause issue for a lot of the problems that we see around our members’ facilities.”

According to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency as of last year had around 1,800 fewer agents than it needed to process people entering the United States. And the problem will likely get worse before it gets better, even though CBP has lots of fancy new gear that is meant precisely to streamline the whole process. The agency acknowledges it’s an issue.

“COVID was still impacting numbers when we had that 1,800 that we assessed last year,” said Jody Hardin, CBP’s executive director for planning, program analysis, and evaluation. Updated numbers due to be released later this year will show a “slight increase in the amount of officers needed,” she added, though airport staffing is a less urgent need compared with the United States’ southwestern border.

CBP has deployed a patchwork of different technologies over the past decade to ease the load, starting with “automated passport control” kiosks that it debuted in 2013 that allowed incoming travelers to scan their passport, take their picture, and, when necessary, provide fingerprints and additional information.

Those kiosks have now largely been phased out, only used for trusted traveler programs such as Global Entry that pre-verify members at a price tag of $100 so they can skip the immigration lines. Global Entry is currently available to citizens of the United States and 13 partner countries, with some 8 million users. A smartphone-enabled version, known as mobile passport control, which CBP brought in-house last year after previously subcontracting it to private companies, is only available to U.S. and Canadian citizens entering through one of 33 U.S. airports. 

As of now, however, CBP is increasingly leaning on a biometric facial comparison system known as Simplified Arrival. The system uses cameras placed next to immigration officers to take a picture when a traveler walks up and matches it to an existing passport or visa photo on file. According to Matthew Davies, the executive director of the CBP’s admissibility and passenger programs, the system has thus far processed around 285 million travelers since it debuted in 2018 and prevented more than 1,700 people from illegally entering the United States. The agency has also deployed a biometric exit program that scans the faces of passengers exiting the country at three dozen airports. It has been a long time coming: A biometric entry-and-exit program was a recommendation in the 9/11 Commission Report, and several federal statutes since then have required the Department of Homeland Security to implement such a program.

“From the standpoint of a counterterrorism practitioner, one of the things we always tried to do is to spend less time worrying about the people who were a low risk so that we could devote more time and attention to the people who are a higher risk,” said Thomas S. Warrick, who worked on counterterrorism in various roles for the Department of Homeland Security during the George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations. 

Proponents of the system say using facial recognition technology to compare a passport image to an image taken on arrival—supplemented by a second look by a CBP officer in the case of an inconclusive match—optimizes privacy, national security, and time. 

“Essentially, what their job is trying to do is find the needle in the haystack, and if you can get rid of hay that you know is not a problem, that’s a good strategy,” Cornelius said. 

But critics of facial recognition technology cite its troubling implications for privacy and potential discrimination, with a history of law enforcement agencies misidentifying nonwhite faces. A group of lawmakers reintroduced a bill in March that calls for a moratorium on the use of facial recognition by U.S. government agencies. Far more sinister examples abound worldwide, with China in particular using the technology to surveil and police its citizens.

“Using facial recognition in airports normalizes this idea of mass surveillance,” said Caitlin Chin, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, adding that “this is part of a larger trend of government agencies or private companies deploying facial recognition in more and more facets of our lives.”

Beyond the societal implications, experts are concerned about how much oversight there is of how biometric data is collected and stored. The same algorithms that send you endless pitches for a new speaker are the ones responsible for your security. 

“We need to pause and rethink and reimagine border control and protection. In the datafication of our world, in this data-driven environment, we need to truly understand how mass surveillance technologies can undermine the practice of citizenship,” said Renée Cummings, an artificial intelligence and data ethicist at the University of Virginia’s School of Data Science.

Davies, the CBP admissibility and passenger director, says the agency deletes photos of U.S. citizens within 12 hours, while photos of noncitizens are retained for 14 days for facial comparison purposes before being stored along with entry and exit records for decades in a system run by the Department of Homeland Security. U.S. citizens also have the ability to opt out of being photographed at the counter and can have their passport examined the old-fashioned way, but Davies stressed that the cameras are simply meant to augment the process every traveler would go through regardless. 

“We’re not trying to subject people to monitoring or extensive surveillance,” he said. “This is literally just at the point where you normally would produce your passport, you’re producing it again, making sure you are who you say you are.”

Depending on where you’re going when you leave the United States, you may encounter facial recognition on the other end, too. Airports in countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom, India, and Japan have deployed facial recognition technology at different steps of the airport process, from passport control to automated boarding. 

In a way, the pandemic created this monster. “The COVID pandemic really kicked it up a notch because people were trying to focus on touchless, and with a lot fewer people going through an airport, they could make the necessary upgrades without causing really long lines,” said Stephanie Gupta, the senior vice president for security and facilitation at the American Association of Airport Executives. The pandemic may have also made people more willing to make the trade-offs on privacy and security that facial recognition systems depend on for mass adoption and success. According to IATA’s 2022 Global Passenger Survey, three out of four passengers would be “eager to use biometrics” in lieu of passports or boarding passes.

“If you have an iPhone, a newer model, you’re using your face to unlock your phone,” Cornelius said. “People are becoming more comfortable with the process.”

But even if travelers are willing to have their picture taken to save a few minutes, the facial recognition technology used by CBP still requires some degree of human involvement. And there aren’t, in CBP at least, enough humans.

What determines whether two images are of the same person—terrorist or not—is “the Mark 1 human eyeball,” said Warrick, who’s now at the Atlantic Council. “That’s why it’s important to have a human backup and why you have to be cautious about letting computers go too far.” 

Update, May 2, 2023: This article has been updated to include clarification from CBP on who can opt out of being photographed and federal requirements to implement a biometric entry-and-exit program.

Rishi Iyengar is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Iyengarish

Clara Gutman-Argemí was an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy from 2022-2023.

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