Caution urged on entry/exit system

President Bush has visions of an immigration entry and exit system complete with biometric identification cards and interconnected databases that keeps track of foreign visitors.

Randel Johnson, vice president of labor and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has nightmares about long lines of trucks backed up at U.S. border crossings and commerce grinding to a halt.

President Bush is pushing forward, moving up deadlines for installation of an entry and exit control system from 2005 to 2004.

On Feb. 20, Johnson urged Immigration and Naturalization Service to move cautiously, joining other business representatives at the inaugural meeting of INS' Data Management Improvement Act Task Force.

INS officials spoke of security improvements they believe will be possible with automated identification systems and better information sharing among federal and local law enforcement databases. But business representatives from the trucking, cruise ship and airline industries worried about disruption that would cripple commerce and stifle tourism.

"My major concern is increased inspection time," said Martin Rojas of the American Trucking Association. New border security systems cannot be allowed to impede trade, he said.

Johnson voiced the same concern, asking what happens when facial recognition systems and retina scanners stop functioning in the freezing temperatures of Alaska or the searing heat of the Arizona desert.

Amid the enthusiasm to harness eye scanners, smart cards and other security technology in border protection, keep in mind that "nothing has been tested on the scale that is being contemplated here," he said.

At San Ysidro, Calif., for example, 50 million people cross the U.S.-Mexican border each year, many making the trip daily, said Theresa Brown, a manager of labor and immigration policy at the Chamber of Commerce. Does each one need to be stopped and checked upon each crossing? "It boils down to traffic flow," she said.

INS has in mind a system that, for starters, will tell them which foreigners in the United States are here legally and which have overstayed their visas. The system would record arrivals, keep track of changes in status, such as a visa extension, record departures, and include some form of positive identification, such as an eye scan or fingerprint.

INS also wants its system to be interconnected with Justice Department, State Department, the U.S. Customs Service and law enforcement databases so that visitors' activities can be periodically "reviewed," said Robert Mocny, director of the INS Entry-Exit Project Office.

And the Bush administration is emphasizing speed. Testing of a system for tracking visitors arriving by air from countries where no visas are required is to begin in August. A system to keep track of all arrivals by air and sea is to be in place by the end of 2002. It is to be in place at all U.S. entry points by the end of 2004.

"That would be extraordinarily difficult," Johnson said.

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