Diplomacy spotlights border systems

The U.S. is undertaking numerous technology initiatives with Canada and Mexico to improve border security

The United States is giving international diplomacy a high-tech twist, undertaking numerous technology initiatives with Canada and Mexico to improve border security.

The Homeland Security Department is working closely with Canadian and Mexican agencies so the border and immigration systems that the neighboring countries use can exchange information.

State and local governments along both sides of the borders also have become involved, working with one another to improve communications among public safety agencies.

Border security is "probably the single most important policy issue facing Canada in the next five years, and probably facing" the United States, said Bill Sheppit, immigration counselor with the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. He spoke June 10 on a border security panel at the E-Gov 2003 conference in Washington. FCW Media Group sponsored the conference.

Canadian officials recently selected Siebel eGovernment applications for use in systems that manage numerous immigration services, including visitor visas, temporary worker visas, and foreign student and refugee tracking.

The Canadian system — similar to the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indication Technology (U.S. VISIT) system, which is being installed at ports of entry nationwide — will link to Canada's law enforcement system and its overseas outposts. Eventually, users will be able to share information with the United States to protect the common border.

"We're working with the Canadian government to build out a solution to help them with immigrants to Canada" and with border management, said Frank Bishop, Siebel's vice president and general manager for the public sector.

Canada and the United States entered into a smart border agreement in December 2001. It included 30 action items to secure the border without slowing travel and trade between the countries.

Six items are information technology-specific and 11 others require IT support, he said. For example, the two countries would like to incorporate fingerprints or other biometric identifiers in immigration documents. They also are developing advanced passenger information systems to screen air travelers before they arrive.

Officials from both nations now must ensure the systems are interoperable — a task complicated by the differing technical standards that the countries use.

South of the Border

Similar work is under way along the southern border, where Mexican and U.S. officials are working from a 24-point action plan, which includes harmonizing port-of-entry operations, implementing an advanced passenger information system and facilitating the electronic exchange of information.

The current initiatives build on years of cooperation between the United States and Mexico. For example, in the mid-1990s the United States installed the Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection system at ports of entry on the Mexican border to ease crossings for frequent travelers. Travelers receive a transponder for their vehicle — much like E-ZPass, SmartTag and other devices used at many tollbooths — allowing them to speed through the checkpoint, said Robert Mocny, deputy director of U.S. VISIT, also speaking at E-Gov.

Although diplomacy is typically a federal function, state and local governments, concerned about their ability to respond to border incidents, have become involved. Arizona officials are working on a communications strategy for the four counties along the U.S./Mexican border as a first step toward an international plan with border cities in Mexico.

By year's end, Arizona officials plan to deploy cross-band radio connector devices that will enable the independent radio systems used by numerous U.S. federal, state and local agencies to talk to one another. The state would provide training and turn over ownership of the equipment to local authorities.

"And it goes on from there," said Frank Navarrete, the state's homeland security director. "So we've come up with an idea that we want to use as a model for international interoperability by using a patching technology with equipment that exists today off the shelf."

State, federal and local officials plan to meet soon to discuss coordination with Mexican officials, he said, adding he's not sure yet whom they will talk with from Mexico. But cities in both countries have had mutual aid agreements in place for some time for public safety and health concerns

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