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Border Security Baby Steps By: Bill West
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, January 14, 2004

On January 5, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inaugurated the use of its U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology system, otherwise know as US VISIT. This system was put into operation at many airports and several passenger seaports around the Nation, with implementation at land ports of entry to occur throughout 2004 and 2005.

US VISIT represents the first major border security technology based on biometrics, and the Department of Homeland Security should be applauded for moving forward with this much needed system. US VISIT, however, is something long overdue, and there are plenty of border security holes that need plugging.

Initially, foreign travelers entering the US with a visa are required to submit to the US VISIT process, which amounts to two digital fingerprints and a digital photograph in addition to the usual document scrutiny and brief inspectional questioning such entrants always receive. Visitors from 27 “visa waiver” countries, however, are exempt the US VISIT process. These are primarily Western and Northern European countries, Japan and Australia. Had US VISIT been in place when they entered, convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid and 9-11 terror suspect Zacharias Moussoui, who traveled on exempt European passports, would not have been required to submit their fingerprints and photographs. Eventually, we are told, the visa waiver entrants will also be incorporated into the US VISIT system.

The departure part of US VISIT is still a work in progress. A pilot program is in place at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the Miami Seaport. Departure verification is a critical part of the success of the biometric system. Tracking temporary foreign visitors is what the system is all about. But, what about those who the system indicates do not leave? Presumably, the master US VISIT computer will begin dutifully delivering to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the interior investigative enforcement arm of DHS, leads on alien visitors who have overstayed their temporary status. Since past studies have shown nearly half the illegal alien population in the US entered originally with temporary visas, those leads are likely to be many and soon. The 5500 or so ICE Agents are already overwhelmed with existing casework, so exactly who is supposed to pursue those newly generated US VISIT violator leads, even after presumably some intelligence triage is conducted? And, when departure control is fully implemented, will those violator leads be placed into the FBI’s National Criminal Information Center (NCIC) as lookouts? If the enforcement resources are not there to do follow-up investigations, then US VISIT information becomes a huge stagnant pool of intelligence waiting for someone to tap. Not necessarily a bad thing, but is it really the best way to utilize the database?  Hopefully, some appropriate officials are thinking about such things.

Technology and border/immigration law enforcement have not always gone together well. The former INS had a tendency to institutionally resist technological advances within its law enforcement divisions, and DHS has inherited much of that legacy. The numerous INS computer databases, for example, were never interfaced with each other, much less with the computers of other Federal agencies, and that in spite of hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the agency in supposed “upgrades” to its database systems.

In May of 1997, testimony was provided to the House Immigration Subcommittee relating to rampant visa and immigration benefit fraud, and how organized crime and terrorist groups engaged in such criminal activity. That testimony noted how the implementation of biometric technology into the visa and benefit application process would help reduce fraud and increase the ability to investigate violations. Nothing happened and little improved.

Within the rank and file of INS law enforcement, the perpetual non-progress in technology went beyond embarrassment to suspicion of deliberate action by senior policy managers who truly did not want effective national immigration law enforcement. 9-11 and the ensuing war on terror changed all that. The Nation can no longer afford lax and ineffective immigration law enforcement, as it is now clear that national security is often directly linked to immigration enforcement matters.

US VISIT is a solid first step toward the use of high technology in border security. Much more needs to be done and the Department of Homeland Security must be given the necessary resources to fix the problems it inherited and effectively expand and utilize new tools to keep us safe.   

Bill West is a retired INS Supervisory Special Agent who was the Chief of the National Security Section for INS in Miami.  He is now a consultant for the Investigative Project, a Washington DC-based counterterrorism research institute. 

Bill West is a retired INS/ICE Supervisory Special Agent who ran organized crime and national security investigations. He is now a counter-terrorism consultant and freelance writer.

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