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Editorial: Federal government is right to give up on order for biometric scans at border

There will be plenty to argue about regarding President Trump’s new travel ban, which is being challenged in court, but on at least one aspect, the tens of millions of people who live along the country’s northern frontier with Canada can breathe a sigh of relief: The new policy drops the economically disastrous plan for routine biometric testing at the border.

It was an unnecessary addition to the first executive order imposing a travel ban, which was hastily issued within days of Trump’s inauguration. It included a proposal to require routine biometric checks – such as fingerprints or iris scans – of everyone entering or leaving the country. The cost in lost business would have been catastrophic to economies on both sides of the border and, as the plan’s easy abandonment demonstrates, with no significant increase in public safety.

Such a program has been considered, and rejected, since the 2001 terror attacks. The cost and disruption was understood to be too significant. That’s why it was surprising that it was revived in what looked like a cavalier manner.

Fortunately for  Western New York, the objections came immediately. Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority, was blunt. “This would just devastate Western New York,” he said. “It would shut down the border. It just makes no sense.”

Reps. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, and Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, made clear at various times their objections to such a program, as well. And one way or another, at least some degree of common sense prevailed as Trump recast his travel order.

Instead of a blanket program of biometric testing, the new plan would require such testing only for travelers identified as “in-scope.” While the definition of the term is uncertain, it appears to pick up on a 2005 federal study in which it was used to exempt U.S. and Canadian citizens from the scans, applying them only to those from other countries.

That makes more sense, since citizens of those countries are already required to undergo secondary inspections after speaking with an agent in a booth at the border. The disruption would certainly be less. Of course, fingerprints or iris scans on their own won’t reveal anything useful unless agents already have a database that includes that person’s biometric information for comparison. But that’s another discussion.

There are lessons to learn from the fiasco that led to this pared-down program. For the president, it is that shooting from the hip doesn’t work as well in governance as it does in campaigning. There are realities that can’t be wished away.

For voters, it is that pressure and reality make a difference. This appears to be a much better plan than the previous one. More detail is needed on exactly how the program would work and exactly what “in-scope travelers” means, but if it is as it seems, Western New York, and border communities across the north, will have dodged a bullet.

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