Plan for new entry-exit system falls short, report says

The plan to create a new entry-exit system to collect information about foreigners who visit the United States lacks key information, such as what the system will cost and how immigration officials at the Homeland Security Department will manage the acquisition process, according to a new General Accounting Office report.

The report (GAO-03-563), said the preliminary plan for the entry-exit system shows it is being designed to meet functional and performance standards set by Congress. But the plan "does not adequately disclose material information about the system, such as what system capabilities and benefits are to be delivered, by when, and at what cost," GAO found.

GAO also said immigration officials have yet to meet Office of Management and Budget requirements to develop a security plan and assess the system's impact on individuals' privacy.

In 2002, more than 440 million people entered the United States at about 300 land, air and sea ports of entry. Congress first required the Immigration and Naturalization Service to begin developing an entry-exit system to track such visitors in 1996. In 2001, the USA PATRIOT Act required that the system rely on biometrics-such as fingerprints, eye shapes and voice patterns-and be capable of interfacing with systems of other law enforcement agencies. Earlier this year, the entry-exit system was renamed the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indication Technology (U.S. VISIT) system.

In a response to GAO's report, Michael Garcia, head of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Homeland Security, said GAO's conclusion that immigration officials did not provide sufficient information about the system "fails to consider that the lack of specific detail is attributable to a number of policy decisions that are pending, all of which directly impact the features of the system."

Such pending issues, Garcia said, include whether biometric information will be captured for all people entering and exiting the United States, whether official documents will be required of all visitors, and whether exit control procedures will be based on law enforcement interviews and biographic information about visitors, or rely on biometrics and direct observations to determine that people actually leave the country.

The GAO report said such uncertainties should have been noted in the plan itself, and "notwithstanding these undecided policy matters, the plan could still have provided more detailed information, such as addressing how the acquisition was to be managed."

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