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Real Challenges for Virtual Borders: The Implementation of US-VISIT

Press Release
Thursday, June 9, 2005

Real Challenges for Virtual Borders: The Implementation of US-VISIT

The US-VISIT program can only be a small part of the counterterrorism tool kit even when fully deployed, concludes a new report, raising questions about whether the program’s potential benefits justify the necessary investments. US-VISIT may deter terrorists from attempting to enter the United States through legal channels but it alone probably will not catch them, according to report author Rey Koslowski.

The entry-exit tracking system for foreign nationals traveling to the United States was initially designed as an immigration enforcement tool and then recast into a counterterrorism role after September 11. Though not yet fully implemented, its budget through FY2005 is well over $1 billion, with DHS officials estimating its cost through FY2014 at $7.2 billion and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) calculating its ten-year cost at twice that. Dr. Koslowski argues that the program will need a clearer mandate and serious investments of political and economic capital to provide more than an illusion of national security.

The report finds that the US-VISIT program is contending with a number of technical, physical, political, and economic challenges in its implementation. Among them are: multiple missions (immigration enforcement and anti-terrorism); the sheer number of travelers (with 433 million DHS inspections in FY2004); thousands of miles of land and sea borders whose official ports of entry can be circumvented; limited infrastructure capacity at ports to deal with entry and exit requirements; a system that is not designed to catch people with no record of terrorist related activities; a dependence on nearly 20 legacy database systems, many of which were notorious for inaccurate data and poor interoperability; and new radio frequency and biometric technologies.

The US-VISIT program processed 16.9 million foreign visitors by the end of 2004, adding an average of only 15 seconds to the entry process at air and seaports. However, enrollment is only required of those traveling with regular visas or entering under the Visa Waiver program, which in FY2002 was 6.3 million of the 358.3 million total land border entries. According to the report, “If current entry rates follow recent historical patterns, only 1.5 to 2 percent of those people entering the United States over land borders are being enrolled by US-VISIT.”

Dr. Koslowski finds that for the system to function as envisioned, it will ultimately take greater investments in areas including: border infrastructure, data acquisition, and human resources. It also may require political will and contributions on the part of US citizens. He writes, “Policymakers are often reluctant to ask their own citizens to sacrifice – to wait longer for proper inspections at borders, to pay more for international travel, to submit biometrics for more secure travel documents. It is much easier to envision a technological solution and promise that it will have little, if any, impact on citizens’ lives and their pocketbooks. It is not yet clear what US-VISIT will be able to accomplish, but this largely depends on the willingness of Congress and the president to ask the American people to make a few sacrifices.”

Key Recommendations:

Reconsider policy and/or revise implementation expectations. If US-VISIT is primarily a counterterrorism tool, it must be measured against other possible investments, such as “improving information sharing on stolen passports, better incorporation of stolen passport data into watch lists, intelligence programs to better identify travel document fraud associated with terrorists, and other intelligence measures.” 

Alternatively, if the primary goal of US-VISIT is to reduce visa overstays and enforce immigration laws, it should be weighed against investments such as an employment eligibility verification system as part of interior enforcement. 

Dr. Koslowski concludes it may ultimately better to scale back the requirements and expectations of the program than to develop a problem-ridden, partially deployed system that cannot accomplish the unrealistic goals set out for it. 

However, if the administration and Congress continue to support the US-VISIT program after a policy reassessment of the opportunity costs, they should make a commitment to a full deployment of a complete system that registers all entries and exits, including all US citizens, Canadians, and Mexicans.

Use technology appropriate to the task. “DHS must resist letting US-VISIT become the answer to an increasing range of homeland security problems for which it may not be the optimal tool. This becomes especially tempting as US-VISIT becomes a big budget item before Congress every year.” DHS must also guard against allowing inspectors to become “overly dependent on biometric scans and automated watch list checks and fail to develop or retain interviewing and document inspection skills.”

Hire more inspectors to maintain a balance between information technology and human resources. Deployment of US-VISIT should not be a substitute for more inspectors.

Use port modeling and simulation to better phase in system deployment. “DHS could gain a better understanding of the likely impact of US-VISIT on the throughput at each individual port and enable policymakers to plan accordingly, whether in terms of staffing, building infrastructure, or scheduling system implementation or policy changes.” Such planning also could minimize potentially negative repercussions.

Explore alternative inspection options. The physical limitations of US-VISIT implementation imposed by deficient land border crossing infrastructure, particularly in binational urban areas, may be partially overcome by intensified bilateral cooperation, such as joint US-Canadian exit-entry inspections. Another alternative would be to move inspection areas away from border chokepoints several miles into Mexico, the United States and Canada.

Initiate a national debate on fingerprints in U.S. passports, and if legislation is not enacted requiring fingerprints in U.S. passports, drop that requirement from US-VISIT.

Ensure database security to prevent identity theft or use by terrorists.

Click here for the full text of 
Real Challenges for Virtual Borders: The Implementation of US-VISIT.

This is the first in a series of three reports that will be released by MPI this summer “Assessing Selected Border Control Measures After September 11.” Upcoming reports will address the merger of border inspection agencies through “One Face at the Border” and changes in visa procedures and requirements.