Feds introduce new border system
In the last week the Department of Homeland Security flipped
the switch on two new uses of technology intended to improve
security without slowing traffic at the
In one case the only noticeable traffic was a clog of television crews at the Pacific Highway port of entry filming the first visitor being fingerprinted entering the United States rather than being asked to fill out a form. In the other case, trucks had two or longer hour waits as they headed south across the border.
On December 9, the US VISIT program was officially in place at the nation’s 50 largest land ports of entry, which include all those in Whatcom County. Agency officials stressed in unison that the new program was not going to slow down travelers, but had a chance to speed them up.
“What they’ve found since it started in Port Huron is it’s taken less time than the paper process,” said Blaine port director Margaret Fearon. “People don’t have to fill out forms, make mistakes, go back.” Customs and Border Protection public information officer Mike Milne said average processing time for US VISIT was six to eight minutes per traveler, as opposed to the previous system which took 11-12 minutes. In 2004 the five Whatcom County crossings saw nine million travelers. Fearon said 140,000 of those would have needed to register with US VISIT, underlining the minimal impact of the program.
The US VISIT program replaces the paper I-94 record of arrival and departure with a computerized system that takes two fingerprints from all foreign visitors, except most Canadians who are currently exempt. “It affects basically all the world except for U.S. and Canadian citizens,” said P.T. Wright, national executive director for the program. The computerized record also contains information swiped from the visitor’s passport and a photograph, all of which is compared to the US VISIT database which includes information from a variety of federal, local and international law enforcement databases.
Kent Lewis, traveling with the US VISIT team sent from Washington, D.C. for the event said the new system was “enhancing security and facilitating travel. It’s an extremely valuable tool.”
Critics of the system are concerned with how the system will evolve. “Visualize a border where everyone who is not a U.S. citizen has to park, go in, get fingerprinted and get back in their car,” Bellingham immigration attorney Greg Boos told a cross-border business conference in Bellingham hosted by the Pacific Corridor Enterprise Council December 8. While the system currently exempts most Canadians the 9/11 commission recommends that in time, everyone, including Americans and Canadians, be part of a biometric system “enabling their identities to be securely verified when they enter the United States.” Wright said there were “no plans at this time to have US VISIT expand out.”
There are also questions about how much of a security benefit is realized using a two-print system. A report to the U.S. General Accounting Office and to Congress by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) made the distinction between using the prints for verification – linking a person to the prints you’ve collected from them – and identification – seeing if those prints match any in other systems and law enforcement databases. While they recommend the two prints and a picture system for verification, they concluded it was insufficient for identification as “the image quality of most archival law enforcement databases is lower than the image quality of the data presently being collected by US VISIT and will remain so for some time into the future.” This lowers the accuracy of the system from 96 percent for verification to 53 percent for identification under those conditions. Effectively, the system is highly accurate at determining if the person at the counter is the same person who entered the United States a week ago, but it has half a chance of matching them to an arrest in Germany in the 1980s for bomb-making. NIST recommends using a 10-print system for that purpose.
“How much space will it take to do it right? How much will it cost?” Boos wanted to know. US VISIT public information officer Kim Weisman said $380 million was spent on the program in 2003 and $340 million in both 2004 and 2005. Similar funding is anticipated through 2010.
also asked why the system was being rolled out now when
there was no way to collect exit information. Wright
said that while “technically, officially,
there is an exit portion,” to the US
VISIT process as there was to the I-94 process,
there is no official pathway for travelers
to report their exit at land borders. “Beginning
next summer we’ll start testing to
see if we can develop an exit solution so
people can exit at current speed to meet
our mandate of not impacting legitimate trade
and travel,” he said, suggesting a
radio frequency card similar to a NEXUS card
could be used.
The Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) pilot program at Pacific Highway started up at midnight Saturday, December 11 to little fanfare and long south bound truck lines that continued into the week. Milne said delays were temporary and would ease as inspectors learned the new system and technological bugs were worked out. “We have 50 technicians working on it now,” he said.
Under the new system trucks submit their manifests electronically prior to arrival. “We have these systems already in place for ships,” he said. “We have it for air cargo and people, and we’re bringing it up on rail.”
Since November 15, all carriers have needed to have arrival information at the border an hour before arrival, said acting port director Jay Brandt, and most do so through an entry from a broker. “That’s the interim measure until or when an electronic manifest becomes required,” he said. He said currently only 60 carriers were equipped to send electronic manifests to the border, but that the system was intended to eventually apply to all shippers. “There’s one law driving the requirement for advanced information. There’s a new method of doing business,” he said.
Milne said once the bugs are out, the system could make waits for trucker drivers shorter because it will give inspectors time to do any background checks on truck, driver and goods in transit prior to the truck’s arrival at the border. “If they do it in advance we can determine if we want to take a closer look,” he said. “This is a security measure. Hopefully it will increase our security but if we can identify those high risk shipments maybe the low risk stuff can go down the road faster.”