Law beefs up security at borders

President Bush signed a border security bill May 14 that requires foreign visitors to carry high-tech visas and passports, mandates computer tracking of visiting students and improves access to electronic databases in U.S. consular offices overseas.

The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act would make $150 million each available to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Customs Service to improve technology for protecting U.S. borders.

"We can do a better job of making our borders more secure, and make our borders smart," Bush said. "We must use technology and be wise about how we use technology, to speed the flow of commerce across our borders and to identify frequent travelers who pose no risk."

The bill passed without controversy in both the Senate and the House. Lawmakers pushed it as a way to improve national security and fight terrorism. Its provisions include machine-readable visas, a sophisticated name-matching system to identify and bar possible terrorists and the hiring of 2,000 additional immigration and customs officers (see box).

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one of the bill's sponsors, said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks made clear some of the shortcomings of the U.S. immigration and visa system. "This bill is an important and strong first step toward fixing that system," she said.

The law should help make the U.S. immigration system less vulnerable to exploitation "by aliens who wish to harm Americans," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the chief House sponsor.

Even though congressional appropriators haven't weighed in on the programs authorized by the border security bill, funding for them appears likely.

"Congress seems to want to throw more money at security, so I would expect there will be money available for this and other projects," said Bruce McConnell, a former top official with the Office of Management and Budget and president of McConnell International LLC, a marketing and consulting firm.

Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Enterprise Solutions Division at the Information Technology Association of America, said federal money was getting tight, but there was so much congressional support for the legislation that she didn't expect funding problems.

"They are going to find the money," Grkavac said. "Whether or not it's the full amount, it will be close to it. When Congress decides to do something, it's remarkable how quickly they can act."

Although funding isn't likely to be a problem, INS' organizational difficulties could delay the implementation of all but one of the border security programs, industry observers say. The House voted April 25 to split INS into two agencies, although one key technology project also envisioned by the border security bill — a system for tracking foreign students — is so close to start-up that it is likely to proceed unaffected.

"INS and Customs each were authorized $150 million to upgrade the technology at their inspection facilities, but INS has no clue on how to do that. They need to re-organize first," said Doug Doan, senior vice president of New Technology Management Inc., which is designing and installing several IT systems for Customs along both the Canadian and Mexican borders.

"INS has much bigger issues than how to spend $150 million," McConnell said. "Things there are in somewhat of a holding pattern, so I wouldn't expect the money to be spent right away."

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Tightening the borders

The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act would make $150 million each available to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Customs Service.

Among the bill's provisions are:

* Requiring that, by 2004, the State Department issue only tamper- resistant visas and other travel documents with machine-readable biometric identifiers. To read the documents, INS will have to install special scanners able to read the documents.

* Supplying electronic data systems to State consular offices that provide instant access to databases of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. This would be used to block visas from being issued to known and suspected terrorists.

* Creation of a foreign student-tracking system by INS, which announced this month that it would begin operating a Student Exchange and Visitor Information System July 1. This will enable universities and other schools to file electronic reports to INS about student arrivals, changes of address, courses of study and other information. Schools would also be required to notify the government if a foreign student fails to report for classes.

* Requiring all commercial passenger ships and airplanes entering the United States to provide a list of passengers and crew before arrival. This way, border authorities can check their databases to determine if a potential terrorist or other suspect is on board. The bill also provides for the hiring of 2,000 additional immigration inspectors and investigators.

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