U.S. VISIT details discussed

A Homeland Security Department official today released the first details on how the agency will begin rolling out its massive, biometric-enabled "smart border" initiative, known as the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indication Technology (U.S. VISIT) system.

By January, foreign visitors flying into major airports or arriving at the nation's largest seaports must have biometric identifiers — fingerprint technology and photographs — attached to their visas, said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security at DHS. Officials originally had targeted October 2004 as the start date for using biometrics in entry/exit immigration systems.

To build the first installment of U.S. VISIT, DHS will use the almost $400 million in fiscal 2003 funds that Congress earmarked specifically for including biometrics in the visa issuance process.

As described by Hutchinson, biometric-enabled visas will be generated at major U.S. points of entry for the roughly 23 million visitors arriving from countries that do not enjoy "visa waiver" status. These visitors will have their travel documents scanned and will be fingerprinted and photographed to create the new visas.

Further, their name and fingerprint information will be checked against watch lists to search for terrorist connections, criminal violations or past visa violations.

Likewise, when these travelers exit the country they will once again have their identity verified by U.S. VISIT, a process that will also let DHS capture departure information.

"Currently, there is no way to know when or even if our visitors leave, but under U.S. VISIT, that will change," Hutchinson said. "U.S. VISIT will not be a static system, but a dynamic one, able to track changes in immigration status and make updates and adjustments accordingly."

Hutchinson also announced today, during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., that DHS will establish a new Office for Compliance within its Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The new office will scour U.S. VISIT information for visa violations and analyze that data in order to pass along information about suspects to field enforcement units.

Hutchinson said that law enforcement in some cases will also have access to U.S. VISIT information, but for "limited purposes" only. "Let me assure you: Our department's privacy officer, Nuala O'Connor Kelly will closely monitor the effort to safeguard information from misuse."

As DHS moves beyond this accelerated first phase of the U.S. VISIT implementation, the department wants to offload to overseas consular offices much of the process of generating the biometric-enabled visas. The agency will also move to wrap in existing systems such as the Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).

In the coming months, DHS will issue a request for proposals for the design and construction of the comprehensive U.S. VISIT system. Within 60 days, the department will hold a meeting with industry representatives to discuss the RFP.

"In the fall, we will be looking for a large-scale integrator to help us define the future vision of U.S. VISIT," said Jim Williams, former director of the Internal Revenue Service's procurement division, who will head up U.S. VISIT.

Until the U.S. VISIT contract is in place, DHS will rely on four existing contracts to build out initial capabilities.

Jones is a freelance writer based in Vienna, Va.


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