House chair probes development of immigrant tracking system

A key House committee is concerned about the coordination efforts between the Homeland Security and State departments in creating a new immigration tracking system.

Last week, House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., sent letters to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Secretary of State Colin Powell, requesting information about the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US VISIT) project. The system will track the comings and goings of millions of annual visitors to the United States by requiring them to provide two electronic copies of their fingerprints as well as a digital photo of themselves.

"As the deadline for the implementation of US VISIT quickly approaches, I am concerned about coordination between the State Department and DHS in this program," Davis wrote to Powell.

Last Friday, Homeland Security issued a request for proposals from contractors to develop the US VISIT system.

Davis said he was worried that information collection efforts might overwhelm consular offices overseas, which issue visas. The chairman asked that State Department officials provide information about how the information would be collected, how many people would be used to collect it at each consulate, what kind of facility modifications would be required to accommodate the new activity, and what types of technical difficulties the new activity might impose on the consulates.

In the letter to Ridge, Davis said poor execution of the program could "clog airports, cost millions in business and tourism and ultimately hurt border security."

Davis asked Ridge to provide information about the time frame for airports, seaports and border offices to begin participating in the US VISIT program, as well as a list of all the organizations that might have access to the information complied through the program.

"America has long held its borders relatively open as an expression of our desire to allow travelers freedom of movement into and out of the country as business and personal needs may require," Davis wrote. Davis gave Ridge and Powell until Dec. 8 to produce the requested information.

Last month, Reps. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., and Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, introduced the Visitor Information and Security Accountability Act (H.R. 3452), to address concerns raised by the General Accounting Office and various lawmakers about the lack of details about the project. The bill would establish a "stakeholders" committee made up of government officials and private sector representatives to oversee US VISIT.