Senate panel concerned about holes in US-VISIT

A Senate panel roundly criticized the Department of Homeland Security this week for having no radio frequency identification (RFID) screening system in place, or even in development, that can verify when visitors to the United States exit the country by land.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security, said DHS’ U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program does a decent job of monitoring the entry of millions of visitors.

But more than 10 years after Congress mandated a land border exit system, there is still no reliable means of knowing who leaves the country, she said. Moreover, “DHS has essentially declared that [its RFID test] exit program is dead as far as land borders are concerned,” she said. “This is a serious problem.”

Feinstein noted that in 2004 there were some 335.3 million land border crossings into the U.S., but the whereabouts of some 4.6 million of those people remains unknown.

“We have left a gaping hole in our country’s borders,” she said, adding that anyone entering by air or sea could leave undetected by way of one of 170 land ports of entry on more than 7,500 miles of border.

“Failing to address exits at all ports is providing a blueprint to those who wish to harm the United States,” Feinstein said. “Without implementing a comprehensive exit and entry systems at all of our ports, we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to another attack.”

Ranking committee member Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, “Southern border business officials are concerned with the [expected] increased delays at border crossing checkpoints and the impact of the delays on the area’s economics” if an exit system is implemented.

Cornyn has introduced legislation that would permit Mexican nationals with laser visas who have already been screened by U.S. officials to remain in the country longer. He said the Secure Border Crossing Card Entry Act of 2007 (S. 422) would extend those visitors’ stays from 30 days to six months, equal to Canadians’ privileges.

“At this point we have not forged far enough ahead to determine what it is that we would do with that [exit] information if we were to capture it,” Cornyn said, “and whether there would be sufficient [Immigrant and Customs Enforcement] agents necessary to enforce overstays. It’s a significant problem, but I think it needs to be addressed in the context of overall border security and reform.”

Richard Barth, assistant secretary in the Office of Policy Development at DHS, said the department’s first priority is to fully implement 10-fingerprint collection of noncitizens’ travel at visa issuing ports around the world and at entry points in the U.S. That would allow officials around the world to compare prints stored in national law enforcement data banks.

“Deployment of a comprehensive exit solution poses significant challenges,” Barth said, because implementing biometric confirmation of departures via land ports is significantly more complicated and costly than at airports and seaports, where exiting systems already exist.

“Enabling biometric, much less biographic, collection of data upon exit [through a land port] would require a costly expansion of exit capacity, including physical infrastructure, land acquisition and staffing,” he said, noting that some land crossings, such as Detroit’s bridge and the tunnel to Canada, “present no feasible land for acquisition.”

He said DHS is proposing a phased deployment of RFID exit technology beginning with airports, followed by seaports and then land crossings.

“While the challenges are significant, they are not insurmountable,” he said. “There are ways to approach a land border solution, and we intend to pursue them.”

Robert Mocny, acting director of the US-VISIT program, confirmed that DHS has suspended testing its RFID exit system, but he said that was planned from the start. He said US-VISIT’s greatest challenge is developing a biometric exit procedure that will track the departure of all visitors.

He said biometric exit pilot programs have been tested at 14 air and sea locations and that the tests have shown that the technology works. But installing biometric exit systems at land crossings would be astronomically costly and would create hours-long traffic backups.

For example, Mocny said upgrading the exit crossing facilities at San Ysidro, Calif., would cost $500 million, a figure that does not include the purchase of additional land and increased payroll costs.

Feinstein quickly replied, “This, to me, is the typical bureaucratic argument: ‘We can’t do it because it costs too much.’” She characterized current exit procedures as “the soft underbelly of this country.”

Robert Stana, director of homeland security and justice at the Government Accountability Office, said a GSA report, issues in December 2006, concluded that DHS cannot currently implement a biometric exit program “without incurring a major physical and economic impact on land border ports.”

He said building such an exit system similar to the entry system currently in place would cost more than $3 billion and produce major traffic congestion.

In addition, Stana said, RFID systems tested at three exit ports had numerous performance and reliability problems.

“In fact, they were successful in only 14 percent in one test and provided no assurance that the person recorded as leaving the country was the same one who entered,” Stana said.

“We can’t go out and represent to anyone that our borders are enforced,” Feinstein said. “We just can’t do it. And that is a very terrible situation.”

She urged DHS and the US-VISIT program to bring about a “continuum of order” toward putting in place an effective land port exit program as quickly as possible.


About the Author

David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.

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