US-VISIT faces land hurdles

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Officials fear that installing the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) system at hundreds of land-crossing border points could be even more challenging than doing it for airports.

Of the millions of people coming in and out of the country every year, more than 80 percent pass through a land crossing. The deadline for putting US-VISIT in at the 50 busiest points is Dec. 31, 2004, and the other 150-plus points must be covered by Dec. 31, 2005, said Jim Williams, director of the program within the Homeland Security Department's Border and Transportation Security directorate.

He spoke Thursday at the Winter Meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C.

Although the infrastructure at international airports is relatively consistent, "every land border crossing is unique," Williams said. This will mean working closely with city and state officials to implement US-VISIT in a way that makes sense for each location, using both new technology and changes in processes to improve handling of the vast amount of foot and car traffic, he said.

The amount of traffic is a huge issue for cities along the borders with Mexico and Canada, such as Laredo, Texas, said Elizabeth Flores, mayor of that city and cochairwoman of the USCM's Borders and Cities Task Force. More than 18,000 people pass through Laredo on a regular basis, and many of them are going back and forth several times a week, if not several times a day, she said.

DHS officials are considering radio frequency technology, possibly modifying the solution already in use in the Customs and Border Protection's Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection (SENTRI) program for frequent travelers between the United States and Mexico, Williams said. Although air travel gives officials several hours to check a passenger's basic information against watch lists and other databases, the best an officer at a land crossing can hope for is a minute's head start on the identity check, which could be gained through information transmitted through a radio frequency sticker or chip, he said.

In addition to increasing security, this could make frequent crossings faster, much as RF debit solutions speed up tolls on highways, Williams said.

For the future, officials are evaluating radio frequency identification technology, which links a biometric measure, such as a fingerprint, to the basic information transmitted by the RF chip. That would increase the security because it would be harder to spoof the identity of the person in possession of the chip, but the technology is still very immature, Williams said.

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