US-VISIT starts

Homeland Security Department US-VISIT Web site

Officials nabbed nearly a dozen illegal visitors during the pilot test of the foreign visitor tracking system that was launched today at airports and seaports nationwide.

The first phase of the Homeland Security Department's U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) system started today in 115 airports and 14 seaports. The multiyear, multibillion-dollar system will be implemented at land ports in subsequent phases through 2006. The system also will phase in exit technology to track foreign visitors leaving the country.

"Customs and Border Protection agents here...are now on the front lines and a part of US-VISIT," said Douglas Browning, deputy commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, speaking today at a media briefing at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C.

DHS Secretary Tom Ridge also announced the launch this morning in Atlanta, where he described the system as "a new chapter in our government's commitment to securing our nation while upholding America's ideals about freedom of travel and the spirit of welcoming foreign visitors."

US-VISIT applies to foreign travelers entering the country using nonimmigrant visas. Visitors from 27 visa waiver countries will not be included in the program, officials said.

The launch follows a pilot project that ran in the last two months of 2003 at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. More than 20,000 visitors from Central and South America, Europe, Asia and South Africa were voluntarily screened, officials said.

During the pilot, US-VISIT identified visitors attempting to enter the country illegally about 20 times, officials said. One traveler was found to have used aliases to enter about 60 times over the last several years, and another traveler was found to have a felony arrest warrant, said Bob Mocny, US-VISIT deputy director.

US-VISIT allows border agents to focus on the small number of travelers who do try to enter illegally, Mocny said. "Legitimate travelers should know they have nothing to fear with this system," he said, also speaking at Dulles.

The first phase improves the technology of legacy systems such as the immigrant and photograph database IDENT, the Arrival and Departure Information System and the Interagency Border Inspection System.

A border inspection agent scans two fingerprints and takes a digital photograph of each person going through the system. The data is checked against terrorist watch lists, and a person's identity is verified by reviewing State Department records. During the pilot, the process adds an average of 15 seconds to travelers' processing times, officials said.

All 211 U.S. consulate and embassy offices overseas will be collecting data by the end of 2004, Mocny said. More than 50 of them are already doing so, he said.

Travelers were given brochures before they landed informing them of the new system, and signs explaining the procedure were set up in the customs area.

"Education is going to be a key component in making this program a success," Browning said.

Travelers who don't want to be photographed in public will be accommodated in a private area, Mocny said, adding that officials would deal on a case-by-case basis with passengers who declined or were unable to give fingerprints.

"There's a small percent of people who would not be able to take the fingerprints," he said. "That's not the vast majority."

One traveler departing to Dulles from El Salvador said she was not aware the system had started. "I was a little surprised, but I'm glad they're doing it this way," said Maria Garcia. "It's safer."

Garcia said she felt a little strange knowing her personal information is housed in a database, but it's worth it for increased national security. She said the process tacked on a few seconds to her processing time.

Meanwhile, DHS officials released a privacy impact assessment for the first phase of US-VISIT. Last month, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) expressed concern that officials had not followed the requirement of the E-Government Act of 2002 by conducting the assessment. The document outlines what information will be collected and how it will be used and stored.

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