Border tech advances highlighted

Although the technology used to secure the nation's borders has progressed substantially, much work still must be done as immigration and border services have merged into the Homeland Security Department, Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation, said today.

Hutchinson outlined the advancement of the key systems in place to track visitors and cargo crossing U.S. borders, and he highlighted steps being made to integrate and modernize systems.

"Technology is a critical tool that enables hard-working men and women of the Department of Homeland Security to properly balance our national security imperative with the free flow of goods and people across our nation's borders," Hutchinson said, testifying in a joint hearing of two Senate Judiciary subcommittees on border technology.

While many lessons were learned after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said, there remains a lot of work in advancing the technology and training border inspectors.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said the Immigration and Naturalization Service's systems before Sept. 11 were "overwhelmed and undermanned," and the problems in the technology allowed people to "slip through the cracks."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a ranking member of the Technology, Terrorism and Government Information Subcommittee, echoed the concerns of inefficient technology and a lack of information sharing that failed to stop the hijackers from entering the country. She said technology is an essential element safely securing the borders while allowing for legal immigration.

"These blunders and missteps, and the consequences that flowed from them, represent the end-result of having an unfocused, unconnected and unsophisticated technological infrastructure," Feinstein said. "The challenge of our border agencies, therefore, is to establish a state-of-the-art border infrastructure that supports the dual goal of national security and legitimate border crossing."

Hutchinson detailed three critical systems designed to track visitors and protect the borders:

* Entry/exit system. This automated data collection system, concerned with improper visas and false documentation, will collect data about travelers entering and exiting the United States. It is expected to be fully implemented by the end of 2005.

* National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, implemented in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is focused on intercepting terrorists. The system matches biometric data (fingerprints and photographs) against a database of known terrorists and criminals. The system also determines when aliens have overstayed their visas and if an alien is acting according his or her plans given for being in the United States.

* Biometric verification system. Since 1998, INS has produced more than 6 million border crossing cards, which include fingerprints and a photograph. It received $10.6 million in fiscal 2002 to buy readers to decode the information at the borders.

Hutchinson said the bureaus of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protections are working to develop tools to facilitate the passage of low-risk, prescreened passengers with minimal delay at the borders. They are also using force-multiplying technologies, such as aerial surveillance and infrared scopes, to monitor land between the points of entry.

"I think we are where we should be right now, but we need to continue to evaluate" as the technology advances, Hutchinson said.

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