DHS inspector general cites gaps in visitor tracking program

The government's multibillion-dollar visitor screening and tracking program has achieved "only the bare minimum" results and is not being used to verify the identity of most foreigners who enter the country at land crossings, the Homeland Security Department's watchdog said in a new report.

Additionally, the administration has not yet defined or implemented an automated system to track whether foreigners have left the country, DHS Acting Inspector General Richard Skinner concluded in the report on the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program.

The report found that only 2.7 percent of all foreigners who crossed the busiest U.S. land ports of entry were enrolled in the US VISIT program. Most visitors were either Mexicans with border crossing cards or Canadian citizens, who are exempt from enrollment.

The report based its estimates on statistics from fiscal 2002. Mexicans with border crossing cards accounted for approximately 43.8 percent of land crossings in fiscal 2002, while Canadians accounted for about 22 percent of foreigners coming into the country. U.S. citizens accounted for most of the remaining population that entered the country by land crossings.

"We are concerned about the large number of travelers who are exempt from enrollment in US VISIT," Skinner wrote.

US VISIT was implemented at 115 airports and 15 seaports at the beginning of 2004 and included the 50 busiest U.S. land ports of entry by the end the year. DHS must implement the program at all 165 land crossings by the end of 2005 .

DHS estimates that the government could spend $10 billion on fully developing a comprehensive automated entry-exit system.

Foreigners who are required to enroll in US VISIT must provide biographical and biometric information before entering the country. The program checks the identity of foreigners against watch lists of known and suspected terrorists and their associates.

According to DHS, the purpose of US VISIT is to identify visitors who might pose a threat to the security of the United States, violated the terms of their admission to the country, or be wanted for the commission of a crime - all while simultaneously facilitating legitimate travel and trade.

"The full implementation of US VISIT, as currently envisioned, will be a complex, technologically challenging and risky, and expensive project," the report stated. "DHS envisions that the US VISIT program will take five to 10 years to implement a comprehensive solution of integrated systems, processes and data for electronically tracking the pre-entry, entry, status management and exit of all classes of foreign national visitors seeking admission or continued admission to the United States."

As of January 2005, DHS had processed about 18 million visitors through US VISIT. The biometric identification capability of the program had resulted in 2,290 matches, or "hits," with law enforcement databases, including 1,046 criminals and 1,244 immigration violators.

Jim Williams, DHS program manager for US VISIT, wrote in response to the report that the program has demonstrated "solid accomplishments" since it was initiated. According to Williams, the program has enabled the government to take action against more than 400 wanted criminals, smugglers, violent felons, immigration violators and escaped prisoners trying to enter the United States.

"I believe it is important to note for the record that US VISIT has been extremely successful in fulfilling its mission," he said. "It represents the greatest advancement in border technology in three decades."

The IG noted additional challenges the program office faces. For example, Customs and Border Protection officers must query multiple databases to verify a traveler's identity. The report noted that the time-consuming process is "particularly problematic" at land ports of entry because of the limited time to conduct queries and inspections.

"As a result, travelers at land [points of entry] are not inspected as intensively as those at air and sea [points of entry]," the report said. "The integration of the multiple database systems is needed to enable CBP officers at land [points of entry] to validate the identity of visitors requesting admission."

Additionally, because the program does not yet have an exit component, CBP officers at land crossings "have no practical means" to determine if and when visitors have overstayed their authorized time.

"Travelers could avoid verification processes by simply entering as a [border crossing card] holder, and they could do so with little fear of being detected because the BCCs are not scanned and entries are not recorded, making it nearly impossible to determine whether travelers violated the terms of the BCC," the report noted.

Williams said DHS is conducting pilot programs for an exit system at select sites and plans to deploy exit systems at 80 airports by the end of 2005.

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