Tech, Hill issues leave border control in limbo

Despite a looming Sept. 30 deadline, a top Immigration and Naturalization Service official told Congress last week that the agency does not know when it will have in place a controversial system designed to monitor border crossings.

The INS would use the entry/exit control system to keep track of individuals crossing the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada. This information would make it easier for INS officials to pinpoint visitors who overstay their visas and to head off illegal immigration. The INS estimates that 5 million immigrants are in the country illegally today.

Section 110 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 required the development of the border system. But a bipartisan group of members of Congress later criticized the system as having the potential to extend the time it takes for the public to cross the border by hours and as being unfeasible because the technology to develop the system does not exist.

As a result, the Senate last week passed the Commerce, Justice, State fiscal 1999 appropriations bill, a provision of which would repeal the requirement for the system. Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) continues to push for a bill, S. 1360, that also would repeal the requirement at land-border ports of entry. But both Senate bills have yet to be finalized as law, and Congress plans to go into August recess at the end of this week.

"Logistics and Costs"

Nevertheless, the administration is moving ahead with developing the system required, but "we do so with particular concern for the logistics and costs associated with modifying or rebuilding land-border ports of entry, and possible delays for the public," said Michael Hrinyak, INS' deputy assistant commissioner for inspections, who testified last week before the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims.

Close to half a billion legal entries are made into the United States each year, Hrinyak said. INS has systems that collect information on people who travel frequently across U.S. borders, and Hrinyak said several of those systems could be modified to comply with Section 110. But with only two months to go before the deadline, INS has not fully developed the system.

When asked by subcommittee member Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) whether INS would need more than an additional year to create the system, Hrinyak said, "I honestly can't answer that."

Conducting a feasibility study for the system will be a "waste of your time," Donald Brady, vice president of TransCore, a division of Science Applications International Corp., told the subcommittee. "We know it's feasible."

Brady agreed that INS can use its current technology or that which is available commercially to comply with Section 110.

The Canadian government has questioned the system, issuing public warnings that the requirement to record information on every person who enters the United States and to verify each person's departure will create huge lines at borders and stymie commerce. In the United States, the Americans for Better Borders organization released a statement arguing that "the technology to implement Section 110 without seriously disrupting the flow of goods and people across our borders does not currently exist."

However, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee, said technology may be the only way to crack down on illegal immigration.

*******

Entry/Exit Control System

Pros* Would make it easier for INS officials to pinpoint visitors who overstay their visas and to head off the 5 million illegal immigrants who have entered the country.

* INS says it is developing the system with "concern for the logistics and costseand possible delays for the public."

* INS has systems that could be modified to comply with the law for a control system.

Cons* Could increase by hours the wait to cross U.S. borders.* Could adversely affect commerce.* Some argue the technology does not exist to build the system.* INS could not meet Sept. 30 deadline to build system.

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