Homeland Security to expand biometric visitor tracking system

The Homeland Security Department expects to unveil a plan for upgrading the nation's biometric visitor tracking system early next year, the official in charge of the effort said Tuesday.

Officials are drafting what they termed a "comprehensive plan" under which visitors entering the country would be required to submit 10 fingerprints into the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US VISIT) biometric system, program director James Williams told Government Executive.

"We are preparing a plan to do that. We're hoping to complete a plan early next year that would lay out time frames when we would move to do that. We are working closely with the State Department on that as well as the Department of Justice," Williams said at a conference on border security sponsored by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement.

"It's dependent on things like money and resources," Williams added. "We're trying to make sure we have the budgetary resources to do this." He declined to say how much funding might be needed.

Foreigners are currently required to give only two fingerprints and a facial photograph to US VISIT, which checks their biometric information against government watch lists of known or suspected terrorists. The system is being used at all sea and air ports of entry as well as more than 50 land ports. The government must begin using US VISIT at all land ports by Jan. 1, 2006. Williams said that requirement will be met.

The 10-fingerprint standard was announced by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in July, and is expected to greatly improve the accuracy of US VISIT. The new standard must be met by DHS officials at U.S. ports of entry as well as by State Department officials at foreign consular offices.

The standard is one of several recent border security initiatives. Last week, President Bush signed the 2006 Homeland Security funding bill, which provides money for 1,000 additional Border Patrol agents, as well as more immigration and customs investigators and more bed space to detain illegal aliens. Homeland Security is now using an "expedited removal" process at all Border Patrol sectors to cut the amount of time it takes to remove illegal immigrants from the country.

Chertoff announced details of the Bush administration's plan for immigration reform during an Oct. 18 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Under the plan, guest workers would have to leave the country after three years, but could apply to work for an additional three-year extension. Chertoff also pledged to end the practice of releasing illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico into the United States after they are caught.

Still, critics say the administration's efforts fall short of what is needed to protect the nation's borders. A growing number of House Republicans are calling for stricter enforcement of border security laws.

"There will be no immigration reform … until there is a border security plan in place," Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, told Chertoff during an Oct. 19 hearing. "And I hope that you take that back to the highest level."

Citizen militias, such as the Minuteman Civil Homeland Defense Corps, have formed to voluntarily patrol the borders with Mexico and Canada. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates about 40 such groups are now operating along the borders.

"We don't have operational control of our borders right now," Janice Kephardt, former counsel to the 9/11 commission and author of a staff report on terrorist travel, told the conference Tuesday. "The U.S. policy community is still in a guessing game about what's needed to gain control."

She said money and resources are being wasted because the government does not have a "system of systems" approach to border security that includes analytic modeling of needs and priorities.

"What we need is a complete border strategy," she said.

According to Kephardt and other advocates of stricter border enforcement, US VISIT is one project that is moving in the right direction.

About 36 million visitors have put their fingerprints into the US VISIT system to date. But requiring people to submit 10 fingerprints will make the system more compatible with the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System.

"When you first take the print you don't want somebody to be harmed because their print looks like somebody else's. The way you do that is more detail," Williams said.

Finding technology to meet the requirement will be a major challenge, Williams said. He urged industry representatives at the conference to develop mobile, accurate systems to scan and check four fingerprints at a time. He said the new systems must work within the same amount of processing time as the current system, especially at land ports of entry, where about 350 million people cross into the United States each year by car, bus, truck or foot.

The reach of US VISIT, however, is limited. Mexicans with special border crossing cards and Canadian citizens are exempt from having to submit their information into the system. All other visitors at land ports of entry have to submit data to US VISIT only if they are referred to secondary screening. That occurs with about 2 percent of such visitors.

Williams said Homeland Security is looking to industry to develop radio frequency identification cards for visitors coming into the country at land ports. Ideally, the cards would be quickly read by scanning machines as visitors passed through checkpoints.

US VISIT has yet to deploy a system for verifying whether visitors have left the country. Williams said his staff has completed pilot projects on an exit system at 14 sea and air ports of entry, and has submitted recommendations to DHS Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson. Williams declined to discuss the recommendations.

Williams said he hopes to begin testing the use of radio frequency technology at land exits next summer, and begin using that technology by the end of 2006.

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