Tech options abound for INS
- By William Matthews
- Jul 01, 2002
Last fall, the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service declared that technology would be "a huge force multiplier" for improving U.S. defenses against foreign terrorists. Since then, the agency has announced high-tech systems to monitor foreign students, fingerprint arriving visitors and eventually log the arrivals and departures of all aliens.
But technology vendors say innovative information technology systems can do more.
For example, INS could solve one of its toughest problems — keeping track of foreign visitors while they are in the United States — by requiring visitors to report in periodically via the Internet, said John Donovan, a former FBI agent.
INS officials have complained to Congress that with fewer than 5,000 inspectors and 2,000 investigators, it's impossible to keep track of the 35 million foreign visitors who come to the United States each year.
"They're right," said Donovan, who runs a company called USAVisitor.net. But the problem can be solved by getting foreign visitors to report on themselves.
Donovan said he has gotten positive responses to his plan for a self-reporting system from INS, the Justice Department and a joint terrorist-tracking task force.
"The infrastructure already exists," he said. INS could post a questionnaire for foreign visitors on its Web site, and the visitors could fill it out and submit it from computers in hotels, libraries, Internet cafes or anywhere else, he said.
Besides having visitors report such information as their addresses, phone numbers, contacts and activities in the United States, INS could ask them to notify officials about suspicious activities. "The attorney general has the legal authority to ask any foreign national in the United States any question he wants. It's a huge power he has but is not exercising," Donovan said.
The self-reporting requirement "would have the psychological effect of a cop on the beat," and most foreign visitors would comply, he said. And self-reporting would narrow the field of visitors INS investigators would have to concentrate on to those who failed to report and those who reported false information.
Another tactic for tracking aliens involves expanding INS data systems already in use.
Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, said a computerized tracking system being assembled to keep tabs on foreign students should be expanded to track other long-term visitors as well.
That would enable INS to keep tabs on nearly 1 million temporary workers, trainees and intracompany transferees who are in the United States now, Camarota told the House Judiciary Committee's Immigration and Claims Subcommittee June 19.
INS should also add to the FBI's National Crime Information Center database the names of 3 million to 4 million foreigners who have overstayed their visas and now are in the United States illegally, he said. The database, which is checked by local police during routine procedures such as traffic stops, could lead to tens of thousands of arrests and deportations each year, Camarota said.
INS has announced several high-tech initiatives of its own to improve its monitoring of foreigners.
The IT initiatives elicited mixed reactions on Capitol Hill. Rep. George Gekas (R-Pa.), who is chairman of the House immigration subcommittee, said INS workers must try harder to monitor the millions of aliens who enter the United States each year. "There are thousands among those millions, perhaps millions among those millions," who pose a threat to homeland security, he said.
But Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) cautioned that INS must distinguish between aliens who pose a threat and those who do not. Important sectors of the U.S. economy depend on undocumented workers, such as farm laborers and hotel workers. "They are not the terrorist threat that we need to guard against," she said.
Help is on the way
The Immigration and Naturalization Service has two systems in the works to improve tracking of foreign visitors:
* The Student Exchange and Visitor Information System requires colleges and schools to use an Internet-based system to alert INS when students change addresses or courses of study or violate terms of their visas.
* The National Security Entry/Exit Registration System will require some foreigners to be fingerprinted and photographed when they arrive at U.S. ports of entry. Their fingerprints will be compared to digital prints databases of criminals and terrorists before they are allowed to enter the country. Certain foreigners will also be required to periodically report to INS while they remain in the United States.