US-VISIT under the microscope

Congress, watchdogs criticize tracking program

The honeymoon appears to be over for the Homeland Security Department’s system for spotting criminal aliens when they cross U.S. borders.

For the past three years, the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program had escaped much of the criticism other DHS programs received. Congress generally praised the program’s progress since its creation in 2003 in response to the 2001 terrorist attacks. The 9/11 Public Discourse Project, successor to the 9/11 Commission, gave US-VISIT a B, the highest grade it gave to any DHS program, when its members issued a final report last December.

Last month, however, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee and the Government Accountability Office said they had concerns about whether US-VISIT is effective and well-managed.

US-VISIT has numerous successes under its belt. DHS uses it to identify foreign visitors entering at 115 airports, 14 seaports and 154 land ports of entry, US-VISIT director Jim Williams testified at a Jan. 25 subcommittee hearing.

US-VISIT has maximized the use of existing, nonstandardized infrastructure under a demanding schedule, said Randy Hite, GAO’s director of information technology architecture and systems issues, who also testified at the hearing. But the program still lacks a strategic plan, and its proposed strategies for tracking foreigners’ exits from the country don’t appear to be cost-effective, Hite said.

“The program’s fit within the department’s operational and technology context remains unclear, and DHS has yet to demonstrate that early program increments are producing or will produce mission value commensurate with expected costs and risks,” Hite said in his testimony.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the subcommittee’s chairman, expressed doubts about how well US-VISIT is managing systems that have been cobbled together to support the program. One of the biggest concerns is that US-VISIT still lacks an exit portion, which Congress requested. The program’s 14 test programs to track foreigner departures from airports and seaports are inadequate, Hite added. Those voluntary programs have low compliance rates, and they track documents, not people, he said.

Interoperability within DHS and with other federal agencies is another sticking point. Williams said US-VISIT is working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Commerce, Defense, Justice and State departments to define their interoperability requirements. DHS needs one set of databases to link U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement inside the department and with the Justice and State departments outside it, Williams said.

One of US-VISIT’s difficulties is that it is a program without a home or a sponsor, said Lynn Ann Casey, chief executive officer of Arc Aspicio, a management consulting firm specializing in homeland security and border management issues. When Casey worked with Accenture, the prime contractor on the project, she led the company’s efforts to secure the US-VISIT contract.

US-VISIT officials used to report to Asa Hutchinson, former undersecretary of DHS’ Border and Transportation Security Directorate, Casey said. When Hutchinson left DHS in March 2005, neither U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials nor any senior DHS executive embraced the program.

For US-VISIT to meet its program goals, Casey said, DHS’ senior leadership must encourage CBP and US-VISIT to work more closely together.

Budget déjà vu

In his fiscal 2007 budget request, President Bush wants the Homeland Security Department’s U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program to receive $399.5 million, $62.9 million more than it received in fiscal 2006.

Most of the increase — $60 million — would fund modifications that would allow the technology to capture 10 fingerprints instead of two from travelers who register with the program. The modifications are necessary to improve interoperability between DHS and the Justice and State departments. The money, for example, would enable data sharing between DHS’ Identity Database and the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identity System.

Interoperability is critical for US-VISIT to succeed, said Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee. US-VISIT needs to share fingerprint data in real time with the FBI and Justice, he said.

The lack of viable exit-tracking programs has led the subcommittee to limit funding to US-VISIT in the past, said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the subcommittee’s chairman. In 2006, Congress gave the program $336.6 million, less than the $390 million in the president’s budget request.

Byrd said he hopes the fiscal 2007 budget will include enough money for the program to quickly improve its performance.

Gregg said the subcommittee will work to give US-VISIT the money it needs.

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