INS readies system to track comings, goings

INS has taken the first step toward building an automated entry/exit system to track foreign visitors

Tackling what is surely its largest and most complex technology project, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has taken the first step toward building an automated entry/exit system to track foreign visitors.

The computer-based system, which is intended to register when foreign visitors enter and leave — or fail to leave — the United States, is considered a key to improving homeland security and control of the nation's borders.

In a presolicitation notice intended for potential builders, INS officials say they want to rely as much as possible on off-the-shelf technology to "verify and record the identities of persons who enter and exit the United States by air, land or sea."

INS has asked Congress for $380 million for the system in fiscal 2003, but the total cost is expected to be much higher.

Robert Mocny, director of INS' Entry-Exit Project Office, compared the size and complexity of building the system to putting a man on the moon or constructing the Hoover Dam. "It's huge," he said.

INS statistics show that more than 7 million foreign visa holders and "hundreds of millions" of foreigners without visas enter the United States each year. In addition, about 500,000 foreign students are enrolled in American schools. But for now, INS has no reliable means of tracking these visitors, and millions remain in the country after the date they are required to leave.

Among the requirements for the entry/exit system listed in the presolicitation are that the system must be able to alert government officials if visitors overstay the terms of their entry documents, and if visitors "are or become identified as national security threats."

After installation at airports and seaports in 2003, the system is to be implemented at the 50 largest land points of entry in 2004 and at all points of entry by the end of 2005.

INS is telling potential builders that the system must be able to interact "with multiple existing and potentially future government and commercial industry databases."

INS officials say they plan to issue a formal request for proposals in June. At that point, companies are expected to present designs for consideration.

In the meantime, officials are preparing to launch a precursor entry/exit system at airports and seaports by Oct. 1 to track foreigners visiting under the Visa Waiver Program. That program permits visitors from 28 countries to enter the United States and remain for 90 days without obtaining a visa.

An entry/exit system can improve homeland security, but only if INS and other agencies can get reliable data about people entering the United States, said Norman Willox, chairman of the National Fraud Center, a division of database giant LexisNexis.

At present, "INS and other U.S. government agencies do not have access to the tools or information they need" to verify the identities and backgrounds of millions of visitors and determine who should be allowed to enter the country and who should be kept out, Willox said. In some cases, information on the backgrounds of visa applicants and other visitors "simply doesn't exist," he said — and in other cases, it is on paper and essentially unavailable.

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