IG sees minimal progress for US-VISIT

Homeland Security Department officials must increase the number of international visitors they track at land-based U.S. ports of entry and ensure that border officials can more quickly verify those visitors’ identities, the department’s inspector general recommended in a new report.

Richard Skinner, DHS’ IG, suggested that officials make these changes, among others, to the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program. US-VISIT compiles databases of biographic and biometric information from international visitors to determine whether the travelers pose a terrorist threat.

Congress has mandated that US-VISIT must eventually monitor all foreign nationals entering and departing the United States. Although Skinner wrote he was cautiously optimistic that the department would reach its goals, he warned that the program has made only the bare minimum of progress.

The IG predicted that success would require even more collaboration among department officials and their partners and would take at least five to 10 years to achieve.

The report does not include specific recommendations for making the changes because US-VISIT is changing and growing so quickly, Skinner wrote.

As of Dec. 31, 2004, DHS officials had deployed US-VISIT at the 50 land ports of entry that receive the most international visitors. Officials at those ports process about 92 percent of all foreign travelers who enter the United States by land. The system will eventually extend to all 165 land ports of entry.

The system enrolls only about 2.7 percent of all foreign visitors who enter the country via land, the report stated. In fiscal 2002, Mexican travelers accounted for 43.8 percent of land border crossings by foreign nationals, and Canadians accounted for roughly 22 percent, the report stated.

Based on travel patterns from fiscal 2003, the report found that the program will need to handle at least 3.2 million land travelers annually. The system will also need to integrate information gathered at air and sea ports of entry, too, the report stated.

Land ports of entry are the weak link in US-VISIT’s protective chain, according to the report. Travelers at land ports of entry are not scrutinized as much as those who come to air and sea ports because planes and ships must transmit crew and passenger information to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials.

Officers at land ports, however, do not get as much information in advance and have less time to evaluate the authenticity of traveler’s documents and identity, the report stated. Even small delays at land ports of entry can discourage international traffic and commerce, according to the report.

CBP employees must consult numerous databases to verify travelers’ identities and discover potential threats, the report stated. According to Skinner’s report, department officials must integrate those databases so that border officers can more quickly and effectively identify who is entering the country.

Another major goal that DHS officials have not yet reached is developing the means to track when and if foreign visitors leave the country, the report stated. Testing for the exit system, which would use radio frequency identification technology, is slated to start in July 2005 and continue through spring 2006.

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