Slow going on border systems, officials say

Homeland Security Department (DHS) officials said they will likely meet the Dec. 31 deadline for completing the automated system to track the entry and exit of visitors to the United States at airports and seaports, but may have a hard time meeting the 2005 deadline for land ports.

Installing the entry/exit system at land ports of entry would require infrastructure improvements. And the addition of biometric technologies, such as fingerprint readers and iris scanners, complicates the system.

"The challenge for the land borders is daunting," said Robert Mocny, director of the entry/exit program for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Immigration officials are required to have the system running at the nation's 50 largest land ports by the end of 2004 and all land ports by the end of 2005. The system will ultimately improve access to relevant information about visa eligibility, help detect fraudulent documents, process biometric data for exact traveler information and improve information sharing among agencies.

"There's been a substantial amount of work on that," said Asa Hutchinson, DHS undersecretary for border and transportation security, of the system's deployment at airports and seaports.

Testifying at a joint hearing of two Senate Judiciary subcommittees on border technology March 12, Hutchinson said he believes the department will make the first deadline. Although technology used to secure the nation's borders has progressed substantially, there is still much work to be done, he said.

Hutchinson outlined the key systems in place to track visitors and cargo crossing borders and 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 at the hearing.

Many lessons were learned after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but a lot of work remains to advance the technology and training border inspectors have, he said. As a part of DHS, the immigration systems will benefit from the resources of the department's Science and Technology and Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection directorates, he said.

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

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) echoed the concerns about inefficient technology and information sharing. She said technology is essential to 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," Fein- stein 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."

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

***

Protecting the borders

The immigration and customs bureaus of the Homeland Security Department (DHS) are advancing three systems to track visitors and protect borders:

* The entry/exit system, an automated system to track visitors to the United States, received $362 million for fiscal 2003 and a proposed $480 million in 2004. Officials are facing a Dec. 31 deadline for deployment at airports and seaports, and an end of 2005 deadline for all land ports — a deadline that will likely be pushed back.

* The National Security Entry/Exit Registration System, deployed in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, focuses on intercepting terrorists by matching fingerprints and photographs against databases of known terrorists and criminals. The system also determines when foreigners have overstayed their visas or acted contrary to their plans for being in the country.

* The biometric verification system includes border-crossing cards with fingerprints and a photograph. Since 1998, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was absorbed into DHS, has produced more than 6 million cards and received $10.6 million in fiscal 2002 to buy readers to decode the information.

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