INS courts airlines for help tracking foreign visitors

The Immigration and Naturalization Service is considering ways to automate the collection of non-immigration documents to better track visitors who remain in the United States illegally.

INS officials are discussing with various airline executives how the airlines may automate the collection of I-94 forms, which are two-part documents. Foreign travelers fill out Part A when they enter the country and fill out Part B when they leave. The airlines collect the documents and send them to the INS.

But for reasons the INS is trying to determine, many of the forms are not being turned in. That makes it difficult for the INS to determine how many of the 500 million visitors and legal foreign workers visiting the United States every year stay longer than allowed by law.

"The current system is not working very well," said Ron Collison, director of information resources management at the INS. "We believe automating the system will greatly improve it."

The INS hopes airlines will agree to automate the retrieval of I-94 forms by reprogramming their ticketing systems to account for a foreign visitor's departure. The INS would pay for equipment that would allow airlines to send that information electronically to the INS.

The INS could then use that information to determine which countries are home to the most number of visitors abusing U.S. immigration laws. Officials believe Congress would take appropriate action against those countries, such as revoking a waiver that permits a foreign country's citizens to visit the United States without obtaining visas.

A spokesman for Delta Air Lines Inc. said its executives support automating the I-94 document collection and have discussed the system with INS officials. But many questions have yet to be answered, such as who will pay for what equipment, what technology would be required to make the system compatible with airlines' ticketing systems and who would take the responsibility to explain the system to travelers.

"We've just had one contact with INS," a Delta spokesman said. "It's very preliminary."

The INS is finding support in Congress, where cracking down on illegal immigration is popular. Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) introduced a bill in January that directs the INS to develop an automated entry-exit system to track "lawfully admitted non-immigrants who remain in the United States beyond" periods designated by law—typically six months.

The bill also would fund the hiring of an additional 300 full-time INS investigators, who would track down individuals who stay in the United States too long.

The INS has no specific time frame in which to complete the system. If a system can be developed, the INS plans to test it at up to five as yet-unnamed airports.

If an agreement with airlines cannot be reached, the INS may pursue developing kiosks that foreign visitors would use to deposit their I-94 forms. But INS officials do not consider this system a popular option because they view kiosks as intrusive and believe they would slow the boarding process.

"We're confident that we won't have to go to that extreme," Collison said.

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