WASHINGTON – Rep. Chris Collins Thursday took a strong stand against President Trump's call for biometric tests at U.S. border crossings, agreeing with critics who say such a move would lead to massive delays at bridges between the United States and Canada.
"Biometric entry-exit scanning at our northern border would significantly delay the daily commutes of hard-working Americans and Canadians and cause undue burdens on trade," the Clarence Republican said in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. "Additional screening at the northern border would also surpass the current capabilities of many of our border facilities."
Collins' letter is significant because he is expected to hold considerable sway with the new Trump administration. Collins was the first House member to endorse the New York developer for president, and has appeared on television in Trump's defense dozens of times in recent months.
The letter to Kelly marks Collins' first major break with Trump since he became president Jan. 20.
“Western New Yorkers and our economy rely heavily on the timely movement between Canada and the United States via the Peace Bridge,” Collins said in a statement. “While keeping our communities safe is my number one priority, I want to ensure that before any agency implements the biometric exit-entry system fully, we examine all possible transportation impacts and take steps to alleviate any disruptions that may be created."
Collins wrote the letter to Kelly in response to Trump's executive order last Friday that, in addition to restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and temporarily suspending refugee resettlement, includes the biometric requirement at border crossings.
Trump's executive order states: "The Secretary of Homeland Security shall expedite the completion and implementation of a biometric entry-exit tracking system for all travelers to the United States, as recommended by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States."
That means the U.S. government would have to install equipment that would do either fingerprint or iris scans on everyone entering and leaving the United States.
The commission Trump referenced – more commonly known as the 9/11 Commission – recommended in its 2004 report that biometric identification systems be utilized at the border. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, required that a “biometric identifier” be included in identifying foreign nationals at the borders. The aspect of the law requiring that biometric identification be used at the border was not implemented during Clinton’s administration, nor under those of Presidents George W. Bush or Barack Obama.
After Trump’s executive order was made public, Peace Bridge general manager Ron Rienas lashed out immediately against biometrics at the border, saying: “This would just devastate Western New York. It would shut down the border. It just makes no sense.”
Rienas took a similar stance in 2015, blasting a similar bill by House Republicans. “That would absolutely shut down the border,” he said at the time.
Rep. Brian Higgins also quickly criticized the proposal last week.
"This is a silly idea that's going nowhere," the Buffalo Democrat said of Trump's proposal. "But it feeds the narrative of his that he's anti-immigration."
Asked for comment last Friday, Collins' office did not respond.
But Collins – who has strongly supported the controversial anti-immigration measures included in Trump's executive order – made his opposition to the biometric plan clear in his letter to Kelly.
"I strongly support increased national security measures across our nation and commend President Trump for his swift action," Collins wrote. "However, I am concerned that an expedited implementation of this system will not take into consideration the differences in security interests at our northern and southern borders."
The U.S. border with Mexico is much more vulnerable than the border with Canada, Collins said, adding that a biometric entry and exit system could hinder traffic crossing the Peace Bridge, the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge and the Rainbow Bridge.
Collins played a key role in killing a 2015 congressional proposal that would have required biometric checks at the border. He loudly opposed the measure and introduced an amendment that would have not allowed the biometric plan to go forward unless it was tested in a demonstration project first to determine if it would cause traffic chaos.