US-VISITprogram raises cross border qualms

Published on Thu, Mar 30, 2006 by eg Olson

Read More News

US-VISIT program raises cross border qualms

By Meg Olson

Concerns about more layers of requirements at the nation’s borders sound very similar whether you’re in Arizona or Washington.
“One of our commitments from the beginning is to make sure the technology is going to make it easier, not harder,” said Maria Luisa O’Connell, executive director of the Border Trade Alliance, based in Phoenix, Arizona. O’Connell was at the Pacific Highway port of entry March 24 to chair a meeting between the national policy-setters for the U.S.-VISIT program and groups trying to protect local economies and communities. “We want to make sure it is efficiently implemented and done with good customer service,” she said. “This is our livelihood and it’s billions of dollars.”

The US-VISIT program, which is being designed to record the arrival and departure of every visitor to the U.S. excepting Canadian and Mexican citizens, and the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which will require passports for every traveler by 2008, both need more work, said representatives from border watch groups.

“Congress keeps giving us these regulations but we’re asking them to give us the money to make them work too,” O’Connell said.

The US-VISIT program is at the end of the first phase of pilot testing, said national director of mission operations management for the program P.T. Wright. While procedures are in place to record the arrival of visitors and issue them a radio-frequency identification (RFID) card, his department is still working on tracking those visitors as they leave the country. “Our mandate is to have no adverse effect on legitimate travel and we’ve taken that to mean people are exiting at 40 miles per hour and we have to design a system that allows them to do just that,” he said.

In the first pilot test Wright said they got reads on 90 percent of the cards exiting in cars driven by members of a control group. “We should have 100 percent,” he said. The second phase will try to make the system “more robust,” Wright said, but it will also begin tracking people who use their cards for multiple entries. “It’s going to build a system that looks for unusual travel patterns,” he said.

What the second pilot test won’t do is match the electronic signal of a departing visitor to their departing card, making it possible to record a visitor as gone when in reality someone else carried the card across. “Until we have that phase where only my finger will activate the card are we going to be able to address that,” Wright said. “The technology is there, it’s just not cheap.”

In testimony before the Senate this January the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) was critical of the program for not having an exit strategy in place and not knowing when that will happen, or how much it will cost. “In particular, the department’s return-on-investment analysis for exit options do not demonstrate that these solutions will be cost-effective,” said GAO representative Randolph Hite.

Jim William, national director of the US-VISIT, said there was value to extended testing of a technology solution, rather than spending $3 billion on infrastructure for physical exit inspections. “I look at our land border crossings and they look like economic chokepoints to me. When you look at the impact of a few seconds delay you don’t want to add any time,” he said. “I think what we’re testing is part of the answer.”

Bellingham attorney Greg Boos, representing Pacific Corridor Enterprise (PACE), a northwest advocacy group working to ensure fluid cross-border trade and travel, said he was concerned there was some evidence RFID was susceptible to viruses that had shut down baggage handling in airports that use the system. “I’m worried that RFID is so central to US-VISIT,” said Boos.

Williams didn’t address the issue of overall system vulnerability but he did say that personal records were not being embedded in the RFID chips, only a tracking number linked to a database, which would protect private information.

Besides developing a technological solution to collecting entry and exit information, Williams stressed that a key role for the US-VISIT program was to create a database, linked with other federal databases. “We’re trying to take that information and make it work across the information spectrum not just to catch bad people but help good ones,” he said.

So far the program has given Immigration and Customs Enforcement information to allow them to remove 247 visitors who have overstayed their visas.

On a practical level having the US-VISIT database has made officers at the border more comfortable and so it has sped up processing entries, said chief Customs and Border Protection officer Jan Pete.
“They know they’ve been checked with all the systems they’re supposed to,” she said.

Today each visitor has two fingerprints and a photograph taken, and Williams said they will move to a 10-print system when cost-effective technology is developed.

O’Connell speculated the process would also make entry smoother for travelers. “It makes it less subjective and easier to make a decision,” she said.

When it comes to the total cost of the US-VISIT system the numbers aren’t in yet, but Williams did say he expected the program to be completely funded by taxpayers through congressional appropriations.
“We’re not anticipating funding from users, not above what’s charged today,” he said. The I-94 card costs visitors $6.

Ken Oplinger of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce said in the rush to fund technological solutions to border congestion, congress also needed to pay for better access.

“There’s still some infrastructure dollars we want to see,” he said. “We can do all this great technology but if people can’t get there it’s not much use.”

Wright said they were working to make the PASS card a single entry document.

“Your PASS card will recognize you as a NEXUS-privileged user,” he said.