Watchdog: Homeland Security behind schedule on foreign visitor tracking component

GAO says department still doesn’t have a plan to track air departures from the U.S. by the end of 2008.

A federal tracking system for foreign visitors who exit the country by air is not ready for prime time, despite a looming deadline, the government's watchdog agency said.

The details of an integral component of the Homeland Security Department's foreign visitor and immigrant status tracking system still haven't been hammered out, even though DHS promised to deliver that capability by the end of 2008, according to a March 31 report from the Government Accountability Office. The department hasn't figured out yet how it plans to track foreigners who leave the country on airplanes through its U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, prompting a GAO official to call a 2008 deadline meaningless.

"It's void of information," said Randy Hite, GAO's director for information technology architecture and systems. "DHS claims this capability will be in place by a certain date [end of 2008]. It's just a date thrown out there. There's absolutely no reason to believe that the date is grounded in any type of reality."

US VISIT is Homeland Security's ambitious program that uses biometric and biographic information to control and monitor the pre-entry, entry, status and exit of foreign visitors. The program uses a strategic approach comprised of two parts: the unique identity component, which uses fingerprints, photos and other biometric information to track all individuals who interact with immigration or Border Patrol; and the exit component, which tracks the air departures of all foreign visitors from the United States.

While GAO found the unique identity component to be well-defined, the agency said DHS provided virtually no information on the exit portion.

"There's this ongoing need to make sure that US VISIT is defined, developed and implemented in a way that allows it to work with other related border control programs," Hite said. "You don't develop these programs in isolation, but in context. Those relationships need to be better defined."

Hite said DHS has alluded to a partnership with the airlines in helping to track passengers exiting the country by air. But, he added, until the exact plan is hammered out with the airlines' input, the exit portion is up in the air. "What little information about what the exit solution is going to look like depends a huge part on the airlines, which they haven't agreed to yet."

Hite said DHS has yet to publish its proposed rules on the issue, a first step toward finalizing an agreement with the airlines. "There are many steps that have got to play out; who knows how long it will take?" Hite said. "The proposed rules were supposed to be out a long time ago."

The report also included some positive feedback on the US VISIT program, such as the decision to settle on fingerprints as the crucial piece of biometric data, a decision Hite called "proper."

DHS agreed with GAO's recommendations, and said it was working "aggressively" on publishing proposed rules on an air exit strategy in time to meet the 2008 deadline.