US-VISIT entry system begins, but exit strategy uncertain

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The first phase of a massive system designed to track foreign visitors as they enter the country launched last week as the technology to record visitors' exits entered a test phase.

As the Homeland Security Department's U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) system rolled out to 115 airports and 14 seaports, travel industry officials expressed concern that the new procedure will mean longer lines and more headaches for foreign travelers.

"Ten seconds is important to us," said Carter Morris, vice president of transportation security policy at the American Association of Airport Executives, referring to the average amount of time officials said the process would take for passengers. "It's certainly something we're watching."

As part of the entry system, officials scan the visas and take inkless fingerprints and digital photographs of travelers entering the country. Their information is checked against criminal databases and terrorist watch lists and verified with information gathered by State Department officials when they issue a visa. More than 50 consulate and embassy offices overseas collect this biometric data, and all 211 offices will do so by the end of 2004, DHS officials said.

US-VISIT allows border agents to focus on the small number of travelers who try to illegally enter, said Bob Mocny, the project's deputy director. "Legitimate travelers should know they have nothing to fear with this system," he said, speaking last week at Washington Dulles International Airport.

The government also plans to scan documents and fingerprints when visitors leave the country. The exit procedure has not been finalized, and Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Miami Seaport cruise line terminals are testing one option, self-service kiosks. Officials will also be testing other exit solutions, such as handheld devices, throughout the year.

Although the entry technology can be added to the existing infrastructure, the foundation for the exit technology doesn't exist, Morris said, making the right exit solution harder to implement. "On exit, we haven't traditionally had a place that people have to go," he said. "Where do you put the kiosk? We don't have the solution."

Complications arise with connecting flights from non-international airports and the idea of having a self-service yet mandatory check out, Morris said.

Rick Webster, director of government affairs for the Travel Industry Association of America, said DHS officials were smart to roll out the entry phase during a slow travel time. "The real challenge will come in the spring and the summer," he said. "When they start to get the volume, they are going to see a lot more bodies standing in front of those inspectors. The process will add more time, and the question is how much more time." DHS officials should be aware the process may need to be modified for different airports, Morris said, likening it to dealing with automobile traffic: Some highways are more strained than others. "That's what our message to the department has been," he said. "You have to make sure you're building this airport by airport."

Some critics also questioned why travelers from the 27 visa waiver countries and Canada were exempted from the program, but Webster noted that DHS officials had to start somewhere. Eventually, those travelers will also be required to give some biometric identifiers, he said.

A major piece of the rollout included passenger outreach to inform them of the new procedures. Officials gave travelers brochures on the plane, set up signs in the customs area and are developing educational videos. Officials have procedures to accommodate passengers who request the process to be private, and they plan to deal on a case-by-case basis with passengers who refuse or are unable to give fingerprints, Mocny said.

One traveler arriving at Dulles from El Salvador said she was not aware the system had started. And although she felt a little strange knowing her personal information would be housed in a government database, she said it was worth it for national security. "I was a little surprised, but I'm glad they're doing it this way," said Maria Garcia. "It's safer."

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