US-VISIT: Some progress, but work remains

Homeland Security: Visitor and Immigration Status Program Operating, but Management Improvements Ar

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The Homeland Security Department’s system for tracking border crossings by foreigners has progressed but key elements of the program have not, senators and federal watchdogs said today.

The U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program has prevented criminal aliens from entering the country and stopped others from trying, said Jim Williams, director of US-VISIT. He spoke to the Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.

The program, intended to strengthen border controls for visiting foreigners in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, identifies the entry of foreign visitors at 115 airports, 14 seaports and 154 land ports of entry, Williams said.

US-VISIT has had to leverage existing, nonstandardized infrastructure under a demanding schedule, said Randy Hite, director of information technology architecture and systems issues at the Government Accountability Office. “They have effectively played the cards they were dealt,” he said.

“You made a lot more progress than I thought you’d make, to be honest,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the subcommittee.

But GAO and DHS’ Office of the Inspector General have concerns about how US-VISIT is managing the various proprietary systems, Gregg said. Hite and Gregg said the program still lacks a strategic plan and its proposed plans for tracking foreigners’ exits from the country don’t seem cost-effective.

“The program’s fit within the department’s operational and technology context remains unclear, and DHS has yet to demonstrate that early program increments are producing or will produce mission value commensurate with expected costs and risks,” Hite wrote in his testimony.

In managing a system of systems, the program must centralize oversight of configuration management and security, Hite said.

DHS must define the overall interoperability context in which US-VISIT and other major programs, such as Secure Flight and Registered Traveler, will operate, Hite said.

Right now at US-VISIT, “sometimes the tail is trying to wag the dog” because they want to do things that they don’t have control over, Hite said.

The absence of a strategic plan doomed Trilogy, the FBI’s unsuccessful attempt to modernize its IT systems, Gregg said.

The program’s 14 pilot programs to track foreigner departures from airports and seaports are inadequate, Hite said. The voluntary programs have low compliance rates and track documents, not individuals, he said.

Creating an exit-tracking system that mirrors the entry-tracking system nationwide would cost more than $3 billion, Williams said. Working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has pushed the compliance to near 90 percent, he said.

Interoperability is critical for US-VISIT to succeed, said Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.), the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat. US-VISIT still needs real-time information sharing of fingerprint data with the FBI and Justice Department. “This system isn’t going to work unless we can tap that FBI database,” Gregg said.

President Bush requested $390 million for US-VISIT in the 2006 fiscal but the program received $340 million, Williams said. The program could use more money in the 2007 fiscal, he said.

The lack of viable exit-tracking programs has contributed to the subcommittee limiting funding to US-VISIT, Gregg said.

Byrd said he hopes the 2007 fiscal budget will include enough money for the program to rapidly improve its performance. Gregg said the subcommittee will work to give US-VISIT the money it needs.

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