US-VISITtesting gets underway

Published on Thu, Oct 6, 2005 by eg Olson

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US-VISIT testing gets underway

By Meg Olson

Testing of the US-VISIT program at the Peace Arch is well-underway and critics of the program are questioning if the program will ever be able to fulfill its congressional mandate: the identification of visitors as they leave the country. Currently, the program is only able to indicate if the US-VISIT card has left the country, not the actual foreign visitor.

“This is a first step, a proof of concept to see if we can use radio-frequency as a technology with US-VISIT,” said U.S. Customs and Border Protection Seattle office spokesman Mike Milne. “We just started testing one part. Of course, there are gaping holes.”

The US-VISIT program was rolled out at airport and seaports in early 2004, taking personal information, a photo and two fingerprints from visitors as they enter the United States. Today entry procedures are in place at 115 airports and 15 seaports. In late 2004 the 50 busiest land borders, including all those in Whatcom County, started enrolling visitors as they enter the country. By the end of 2005, entry procedures will be in place at all land borders.

Critics of the system, however, wonder if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can monitor the visitors as they leave without slapping a roadblock in the way of trade and travel.

At 12 airports and two seaports, US-VISIT has an exit strategy in place: a manned kiosk where visitors leaving the country relinquish the I-94 cards they got coming in and are matched to their US-VISIT record through a finger scan.

Acknowledging that land borders will need a different solution, US-VISIT started issuing cards with small radio tags in them and at the Peace Arch port of entry they are testing how the big gray boxes that now hover over the freeway are picking up those cards on the way out. “We’re just testing the read,” said Kim Weismann in the Washington, D.C. US-VISIT office.

There is no technology being tested at this time, however, to make sure that the visitor is in the car with the card. “All it tells you is which I-94 it was, not who was carrying it,” Milne said.

Milne also said, however, that the department was investigating technologies that exist to match a person to their card as they leave the country without having to stop and report in person. Some people might call them futuristic. “One of the technologies is that they’d put your finger scan on the card so only your finger can activate the radio tag,” he said. “That way we know you were with the card when you went out. That kind of technology is out there.”

While the US-VISIT program has so far met timeline and budget constraints, the federal general accounting office is questioning if the program is about to hit a wall. “The exit capability alternatives are faced with a compressed time line, missed milestones and potentially reduced scope,” a February 2005 report states. “The fact remains that the program continues to invest hundreds of millions of dollars for a mission-critical capability under circumstances that introduce considerable risk that cost-effective mission outcomes will not be realized.”

“At a minimum, it is incumbent upon DHS to fully disclose these risks, along with associated mitigation steps, to executive and congressional leaders.”

Bellingham immigration attorney Greg Boos echoed those concerns, wondering if, as Congress addresses the financial burden of rebuilding the Gulf Coast, lawmakers might cut off funding for the program. “Congress is going to be pulling the plug on a lot of speculative programs and this is as speculative as they come,” he said. Another concern is that the financial burden will be shifted to users, so that it costs not $6 to register with US-VISIT, but $50 or more. “What will that do to border communities?” he asked.

Milne said this is to be expected given Congress’ ambitious mandate to monitor everyone who comes in and out of the country. “It’s going to take a lot of years and many, many millions to create a foolproof system,” he said.