New border security system raises cost-benefit concerns

A new computer system to track the arrival and departure of foreign visitors will almost certainly be far more difficult and expensive than the Bush administration has let on.

A mammoth border-security program is the next big thing-at least the next big planned thing-on the horizon at the Department of Homeland Security. Dubbed U.S. VISIT, the program will attempt to track the arrival and departure of those foreign visitors who are required to have visas. But actually accomplishing that deceptively simple-sounding task will almost certainly be far more difficult and expensive than the Bush administration has let on. And the security payoff may be minimal.

How much safer will U.S. VISIT make the nation? "Truthfully, probably not a whole lot safer," says former Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner James Ziglar, who left office last December before his agency was broken in two and folded into the new department. "If the idea is that this is going to stop terrorists from coming into the country, it's not going to accomplish that-although it may have some beneficial deterrent effect," he predicts.

Short for U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indication Technology, U.S. VISIT will involve taking visitors' fingerprints and photographs and checking that information and their names against a computerized list of known terrorists and lawbreakers. The program will also give the department a way to know which foreign visitors have overstayed the terms of their visas. (Visitors from 27 countries are not required to have visas; they will not be tracked.)

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has promised that the U.S. VISIT system will be up and running at every U.S. airport and seaport by the end of 2003 and at the 50 busiest border crossings by the end of 2004. According to department sources, Ridge is frustrated that his department doesn't have much to show for its work thus far, and so he has zeroed in on making U.S. VISIT a tangible accomplishment.

Already, U.S. VISIT is running so far behind that Ridge's deadline might be impossible to meet. A tug-of-war between competing factions within the department has slowed the initiative. The program is supposed to be run by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is headed by Michael Garcia and is responsible for enforcing immigration laws. But Robert Bonner, who oversees the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection and thus is responsible for policing the nation's borders, has been lobbying Congress to shift the program to his division. Also slowing the project is what insiders describe as "turmoil" inside Garcia's shop. Garcia is a former federal prosecutor whose hard-nosed approach has upset many of his service-oriented underlings.

As Ridge presses to get U.S. VISIT on track, he's likely to run low on cash-fast. Ridge is planning to spend $380 million on the program this year and hopes to secure $480 million for 2004. And he recently told a Senate panel that he thinks this money is sufficient. But when Ziglar, who spent two decades on Wall Street, tallied the cost of launching a fully functioning entry-exit tracking system, he came up with a price tag of $10 billion and an implementation time frame of three to four years.

The undersecretary for border and transportation security, Asa Hutchinson, said last week that a functioning U.S. VISIT program could have drawn the government's attention to two of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks because one, Hani Hanjour, didn't show up for school, and another, Mohamed Atta, had stayed beyond the limits of his visa on a previous occasion. But Ziglar fears that terrorists will easily be able to evade U.S. VISIT's security net. "If they're clever, we're not going to know that they're bad guys," he says. "The chances are that they're going to live within the terms of their visa, and they're going to still do their damage while they're in compliance with the law." What U.S. VISIT will improve, Ziglar continues, is the enforcement of immigration laws. (When Congress first mandated an entry-exit tracking system in 1996, the measure was intended to stem the tide of illegal immigration. That system was never fully funded.)

Once U.S. VISIT begins checking visitors against the department's list of known bad guys, the project's usefulness will depend in large measure on the quality and comprehensiveness of that list. The quality controls on the data being fed into federal information banks, especially those at border-control agencies, have been notoriously poor. Studies, for example, repeatedly criticized the accuracy and timeliness of the databases used by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. As recently as February, a report by the Justice Department's inspector general noted, "The INS has serious and continuing problems with data reliability."

Calling the INS's data "a major problem over many years," a former inspector general of the Justice Department, Michael Bromwich, said in a recent interview, "Data quality is the key to having any system like this work properly.... If the quality of inputs [is] lousy, the quality of outputs is unreliable."

The General Accounting Office noted recently that nine federal agencies have compiled a total of 12 watch lists of known or suspected terrorists and other criminals-a network that it branded "overly complex, unnecessarily inefficient, and potentially ineffective."

And fingerprints might not be much more helpful to the U.S. VISIT program than names will be. According to Hutchinson, a foreigner being tracked will be asked to supply two fingerprints at a border checkpoint before being sent on his or her way. The fingerprint database that U.S. VISIT will be able to tap into instantly was designed to ensnare illegal immigrants already wanted by authorities. To instead run fingerprints through the FBI's vast database of criminal and terrorist suspects would take hours, not moments. Besides, some criminals on the FBI's list could slip through the U.S. VISIT system anyway, because U.S. VISIT will use only two fingerprints while the FBI uses a 10-print system.

U.S. VISIT will face a number of practical implementation issues as well. Currently, there's nothing to prevent a foreign visitor from officially checking out of this country but then never actually boarding a plane. The U.S. VISIT system will have to find a way to ensure that foreigners are held in a secure location so they cannot slip away after going through the exit system.

At the land borders, the department can create an exit system in one of two ways. It can build new facilities, which will involve acquiring land, creating more car lanes, hiring more people, and installing new equipment. And these border crossings would need two lines-one to leave the United States and the other to, say, enter Canada. "You've doubled the problem at the border," Ziglar says.

The other option is to cajole Mexico and Canada into doing the exit controls for us-perhaps even pay them to do that. But one Canadian official warns, "Our computer system is not designed to talk to [the U.S.] computer system."

Once the Department of Homeland Security learns which foreign visitors have failed to depart on time, it will face the problem of locating them. (At the moment, some 3.2 million foreigners are in this country on expired visas.) Hutchinson recently announced the establishment of an Office of Compliance, which will coordinate information on who has stayed too long with tips about where enforcement officers might be able to find them.

Also, visa violators won't be allowed back in at a later time. However, former INS General Counsel David Martin contends, "Compiling a list doesn't do much." If the Homeland Security Department is serious about enforcing immigration laws, he says, it should start by tracking down known violators. In December 2001, the INS launched a program to round up 314,000 foreigners who had fled from deportation orders. Some 2,200 have been found and deported. The foreign-student tracking program that began in January has identified more than 2,000 who did not show up for school. But the department has not tallied how many have been apprehended.

Immigration officials have a less-than-stellar record when it comes to finding lawbreakers, and it's not clear how the new compliance team would change that. A recent Justice Department inspector general's report found that the INS was able to kick out just 13 percent of foreigners who had not been detained after being issued final deportation orders. The INS successfully deported just 6 percent of those undetained foreigners who came from countries declared to be state sponsors of terrorism. And a recent GAO study found the INS's procedures inadequate for tracking down foreign U.S. residents who might have knowledge helpful to terrorism investigations.

Still, says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, U.S. VISIT is a step toward making the nation safer. "It's one tool in what needs to be a whole tool kit," he said. "What is the point of any particular security measure? It's not to create a hermetic seal. It's to make it increasingly difficult for bad guys to get into the country and increase the chances that one or two members of a large conspiracy will get tripped up."

The question is what the U.S. VISIT program will add to the nation's anti-terrorism toolbox. Would government time and money be better spent on first building a master watch list? The Office of Management and Budget may soon help answer that question. OMB's administrator for regulatory affairs, John Graham, says that his agency is reviewing the spending plan for the U.S. VISIT program and has asked the department to provide benefit and cost information.

Yet even if the entry-exit tracking system works perfectly, it will do nothing to stop terrorists from entering illegally. And terrorists can hardly be expected to be concerned with such niceties as obeying U.S. immigration laws.