Immigrant tracking system launched amid skepticism
A new immigration tracking system went into effect Monday amid doubts that it would work as advertised and concerns that it might infringe on the rights of immigrants.
The Homeland Security Department launched the first phase of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US VISIT) program at 115 airports and cruise ship terminals at 14 seaports Monday.
By law, visitors with nonimmigrant visas are now required to give biographic, travel and biometric information before entering the country. Biometric information consists of a digital photo and two fingerprint scans, which are entered into a database and compared to terrorist and criminal watch lists. Visitors from 27 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program are exempt from the new program.
"[The program] represents the greatest improvement in border inspection in more than three decades, and is a shining example of what we can achieve when government works together," said Asa Hutchinson, DHS undersecretary of border and transportation security.
The program, however, spurs criticism on all sides, from those who say it doesn't go far enough in protecting the country from terrorist attacks to those who say it might lead to civil rights abuses.
"This is one brick in an edifice of immigration control, but it's not the whole thing," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a research organization that characterizes itself as advocating pro-immigrant but low-immigration policies.
According to Krikorian, though long overdue, US VISIT still falls short of what's needed because it exempts visitors from visa waiver countries such as Britain and France. He noted that British citizen Richard Reid attempted to blow up American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami in December 2002, and French citizen Zacarias Moussaui was arrested in connection with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Krikorian said the program might create a false sense of security and terrorists could exploit the visa waiver program to get into the United States.
Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said more needs to be done to make US VISIT an effective counterterrorism tool, citing several "significant shortcomings" of the program. According to Turner, foreigners entering the country are not being screened against a comprehensive, integrated terrorist watch list; the program is not operational at any U.S. land ports of entry, meaning that less than 10 percent of foreigners entering the country currently are being tracked; and the program only collects entry data at 14 of 42 seaports.
Other critics worry the new program might create confusion or abuses when it comes to immigration policy.
Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said the government has not clarified whether US VISIT is primarily a national security program or an immigration control program. He said the confusion might create potential abuses, such as targeting people of certain ethnicities, particularly Arabs and Muslims.
However, Ibish said, US VISIT is a big improvement over the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which required aliens-mostly students-in the United States to re-register with the government. NSEERS was the first step the government took to implement a comprehensive entry-exit program, and is being phased out as US-VISIT is phased in.
Ibish contends that programs like NSEERS do not create a national security benefit and instead lead to increased costs, confusion and immigration abuses, and he worries US-VISIT might fall to the same fate.
"A lot of the worst problems we have seen have resulted from a lack of clarity about whether these policies are primarily national security tools or immigration policy tools," Ibish said. "They can't be both equally and at the same time."
He also expressed concern about how information collected through US VISIT will be used. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is one of several organizations that filed a lawsuit last month alleging that the Justice Department and the FBI have unlawfully entered information on civil immigration violations into a federal criminal database, the National Crime Information Center, which state and local police access millions of times each day.
Judith Golub, senior director of advocacy and public affairs for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, gives US VISIT a grade of C- as it currently stands. She questioned the speed at which the program is being implemented, the resources available to make it work, the accuracy of databases, the way in which databases are used, and the ability of officials at ports of entry to access other databases that might have updated information on visitors. Golub worries that the program might cause visitors and government officials to get bogged down in bureaucracy, while not providing a significant increase in security.
"Security experts tell us that terrorists will modify what they do based on what we do," Golub said. "Will [the program] help us determine who is in front of us? Yes. Will it necessarily let us know if this person is a threat? No."
DHS began testing US VISIT on Nov. 17 at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. According to the DHS officials, more than 20,000 visitors from Central and South America, Europe, Asia and South Africa have been successfully screened since the pilot began, with only a 15 second increase in waiting times. Less than 1 percent of processed visitors encountered problems requiring further processing, the department said.
The law requires that an automated entry-exit program be implemented at the 50 busiest land ports of entry by Dec. 31, 2004, and all U.S. ports of entry by Dec. 31, 2005. The US VISIT program received $380 million for fiscal 2003 and $330 million for fiscal 2004. However, DHS must submit a spending plan to Congress before spending any fiscal 2004 funds. DHS plans to award a contract in May for incorporating new technologies into the program.