Border towns' new world

Communities say US-VISIT has not hurt commerce ? so far

City officials and local business leaders say that the Homeland Security Department's new visitor-tracking policies have not harmed commerce or transportation at the 50 busiest U.S. land border crossings — so far, at least.

The policies, being carried out under the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program, will soon affect 115 more U.S. border crossings.

Michael Breitinger, executive director of the Central Business Association in El Paso, Texas, said if US-VISIT were causing problems in the border city where 11 million people cross each year, he would hear about it. "I haven't heard a word," he said.

Under the program, travelers entering the United States at land borders no longer have to manually fill out I-94 documents, the arrival and departure forms that non-U.S. citizens must complete before they enter the United States. The forms, which exempt Canadian and some Mexican citizens, specify the length of a visitor's stay. US-VISIT automates the process of filling out the forms.

The program also requires all visitors holding nonimmigrant visas to have their index fingers scanned and a digital photograph taken at points of entry.

In Laredo, Texas, where US-VISIT has been in place since November 2004, Customs and Border Protection officials processed 30,725 more vehicles during the holiday season, compared with the same period the previous year, and wait times were substantially less, said Rick Pauza, a spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in Laredo. "It's had a positive effect on commerce," he said.

Despite the new biometric identification procedures, Laredo officials said the average time it takes someone to cross the border between Mexico and the United States has dropped from 11 minutes to about three.

Initial reports from other border city officials suggest that US-VISIT entry procedures are working smoothly. Thomas Weldon, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Alexandria Bay, N.Y., said US-VISIT's implementation there last December has eased travel across the Canada/U.S. border, even though Canadian citizens are not subject to US-VISIT tracking procedures. "It's been positive," he said.

Similarly, officials in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., which also adopted US-VISIT last December, said the program has had minimal negative impact on border crossings. "Our own border patrol is pleased with the way it's working," said Spencer Nebel, city manager.

In El Paso, which also began participating in US-VISIT in December 2004, city officials say they have observed no slowdown in commerce or travel. "We haven't seen any changes in sales tax revenues that can be tied back to that issue," said David Dobson, El Paso's economic development director.

But officials in some border towns say it is too early to assess US-VISIT's impact on commerce and transportation, especially because exit stations are not yet operating. The program's outbound stations pose the largest technical challenges, said Hugh Conroy, project manager for the Whatcom Council of Governments in Blaine, Wash.

US-VISIT officials are planning to use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology rather than station officials to verify that travelers leave the United States as required. RFID technology is used in highway tollbooth passes, such as E-ZPass, to keep traffic congestion to a minimum.

Starting this summer, US-VISIT station officials will issue RFID tags to pedestrians and drivers to expedite the processing of visitors. DHS officials are still exploring exactly how they will use the tags.

In International Falls, Minn., where US-VISIT has been operating since late December, Chamber of Commerce officials have heard little negative feedback about the program. Kallie Briggs, the group's executive director, said DHS officials held a meeting at a local Holiday Inn to help alleviate concerns that the program would create traffic snarls on the bridge that lets visitors cross between the United States and Canada.

***

RFID coming to US-VISIT

Officials in charge of the Homeland Security Department's U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program are exploring potential uses of radio frequency identification technology to improve US-VISIT. Some RFID features make it attractive for tracking visitors, according to a DHS fact sheet.

Those features include:

Reading a wireless tag without physically contacting the tag.

Linking visitor entries to exits, without slowing departures and arrivals.

Providing entry-station inspectors with visitor information.

Protecting visitors' personal information.

US-VISIT's entry procedures, now in place in the nation's busiest airports, seaports and border cities, have been used to arrest or deny entry to more than 400 people.

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