Ridge accelerates entry/exit strategy

An ambitious system to track the arrival and departure of nearly every foreign visitor to the United States will be accelerated and expanded to use biometrics at the largest U.S. airports and seaports, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced last week.

Ridge said the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indication Technology (U.S. VISIT) system — formerly called the Entry/Exit System and estimated to cost $500 million to develop — would require foreign students, tourists and business travelers to use at least two biometric identifiers, such as digital fingerprints, iris scans and digital photographs, when entering and leaving the country. Ridge changed the deadline for using biometrics from October 2004 to the end of this year.

The U.S. VISIT program would include the troubled Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. SEVIS, which tracks foreign students in the United States, has been criticized for computer glitches and poor management.

Ridge announced that another controversial program to track visitors — the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which requires citizens of 25 countries to be fingerprinted and registered with the federal government — would be phased out.

"This system will be capable of using information coupled with biometric identifiers to create an electronic check-in/check-out system for people who come to the United States to work or to study or to visit." Ridge said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., last week.

The tracking system is intended to make it easier for immigration officials to spot visitors whose 90-day visas have expired and help tourists, students and business travelers enter the United States more quickly by using biometric identifiers to verify their identities.

Robert Mocny, director of the entry/exit program for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Congress mandated that border authorities use biometrics as part of their screening process, but Ridge has decided to advance the deadline for launching the system.

Mocny also said that not every visitor to the United States would be tracked, particularly those who arrived from Canada. The department is still working through legal requirements to figure out who may be exempt from the system.

U.S. VISIT will be introduced at airports and seaports this year, with land border crossings added in 2004.

Tracking foreign visitors is not a new idea. After officials discovered that several of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers had entered the United States on student visas and then overstayed their visits, Congress ordered the Immigration and Naturalization Service to fully implement a tracking system by Jan. 1, 2003.

Plans for the system, however, have already run into criticism from civil liberties groups, which argue that the program must treat all visitors equally and not subject certain ethnic or racial groups to special scrutiny.

"Our concern has always been that it be automated, seamless, that it not delay visitors coming to the United States or deter travel to the United States," said Rick Webster, director of government affairs for the Travel Industry Association of America.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, said that because of the problems with SEVIS, he doubts the government can make an even bigger program work. "We are terribly reluctant to see the government jump into an untried venture," he said. "To suddenly suggest that we're going to leapfrog to biometrics is a mistake. We'd be satisfied to have SEVIS working."

In a conference call on April 30, DHS officials tried to assure public interest groups and universities that the new program was not a major change, according to Hartle. He said officials stated there had always been plans to introduce biometrics into the student-tracking system. "We remain concerned about efforts to push ahead under unrealistic deadlines," Hartle said.

Biometrics experts said the technology is available, but it is probably not a good idea to rely solely on biometrics to help tighten U.S. borders. Bernard Bailey, president and chief executive officer of Littleton, Mass.-based Viisage Technologies Inc., a provider of identity verification solutions, said biometric technology is not always foolproof. For example, he said it is difficult to obtain good fingerprints from laborers and other people who regularly work with their hands because their fingers are calloused.

He also said people from some cultures and countries, such as Australia, which was founded as a penal colony, may resist fingerprinting. "In a controlled environment, where you are able to have control over individuals coming through and you can do it correctly, it can be extremely effective," Bailey said. But even in those cases, he said, it is essential to use two biometric processes for backup.

Although biometrics experts agree that it is necessary to have a backup system, few provide both facial and fingerprinting technology. Many of these companies would have to partner with other firms to combine technologies and enhance their accuracy.

But it can work for a large program, according to Frances Zelazny, spokeswoman for Identix Inc., a leading biometrics company. "These technologies have been proven and validated for large-scale programs, like the program that Secretary Ridge is talking about. We believe that there are many ways to maximize the performance and viability of these technologies to do that," she said.

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Border scrutiny

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced last week that the department's Entry/Exit System was renamed the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indication Technology system. It will rely on biometric identifiers to electronically check in and out non-U.S. citizens coming to visit, work or study in the United States. Almost 42 million people visited the United States in 2002, according to the Commerce Department.

Countries with the most visitors to the United States were:

Canada 13.0 million

Mexico 9.8 million

United Kingdom 3.8 million

Japan 3.6 million

Germany 1.2 million

France 0.7 million

South Korea 0.6 million

Australia 0.4 million

Italy 0.4 million

Brazil 0.4 million

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