July 8, 2004
Six months ago this week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security launched a program to collect information on nonimmigrant visitors who enter and leave the United States. That program is flawed.
US-VISIT (United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) is supposed to electronically fingerprint and digitally photograph the faces of most nonimmigrants as they enter the United States. The data is then checked against terrorist watch lists and multiple other databases before these personal biometrics are fed into a large database run by the Department of Homeland Security.
But the program relies on data that could be inaccurate and has few, if any, meaningful ways in place to correct errors. Moreover, the department recently put design and deployment of the system in the hands of an outside contractor with a virtually unlimited budget.
In a May 2004 report, the General Accounting Office (GAO) severely criticized the Department of Homeland Security for implementing phase one of the system before testing was completed, and for developing a testing plan only after testing was completed.
What's more, according to the GAO, management and testing controls are still not in place even though the second phase is under way.
The GAO has also consistently found that the Department of Homeland Security lacks the necessary resources to make US-VISIT fully operational. Before the program's implementation, the GAO reported that the US-VISIT office did not have sufficient staff, did not define specific roles and responsibilities and had not developed or used data controls.
Furthermore, funding for the program may not be adequate. The administration's budget for next year has allocated only $380 million for implementing US-VISIT. That's well below the GAO's -- and even the Department of Homeland Security's -- own estimates, which predicted it to be more than $1 billion a year.
But more funding would not make this a workable program.
Perhaps the greatest flaw in US-VISIT is the lack of procedures for tracking people who leave the country. Beginning in January, the department initiated a pilot test of departure confirmation systems in just two ports of exit -- Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Miami Seaport cruise line.
The bottom line is that we have a highly inadequate and suspect picture of who is entering the United States, and little idea who is leaving the United States. Half a border-control system simply won't work.
By statute, US-VISIT is to be implemented at the 50 busiest land borders by December 31 of this year. At this point, that seems like an impossible goal to meet.
Congress and the Department of Homeland Security must revisit the US-VISIT program, otherwise it is destined to be another ill-considered and ineffective measure taken in the name of national security.
Joan Friedland is an immigration policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, and Michele Waslin is senior immigration policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of La Raza. They can be reached at email@example.com.