U.S. Installs Visitor Tracking Stations

Times Staff Writer

Four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration has finished installing the equipment for a system to identify, photograph and fingerprint visitors arriving at every land, sea and air port of entry in the country.

The absence of a reliable system for tracking visitors was identified as a serious national security gap as the U.S. reassessed its counterterrorism efforts in the wake of Sept. 11. The program, called US-VISIT, is the first comprehensive system to track foreigners and check their information against criminal and terrorist watch lists.

Described as the “greatest single advance in border security in three decades” by former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, it is not yet fully operational and has been dismissed by critics who say the program’s loopholes and its slow implementation have done little to improve national security.

Even so, observers applauded the news that the Department of Homeland Security had finished laying the foundation for the ambitious program.

“This is a good news story,” said Clark Kent Ervin, a former Homeland Security inspector general and director of the Homeland Security Initiative for the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. “It’s a very, very good first step.”


But there were caveats. “At airports, [US-VISIT] has made a great difference,” said Jessica M. Vaughan, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies. But, she said, even though it has been installed at land points, it is not being used on most people passing through.

US-VISIT debuted in January 2004 with the installation of biometric equipment at airports and seaports. By December of that year, the program had been expanded to the 50 busiest land border crossings. On Dec. 19, Homeland Security met a year-end deadline set by Congress to equip the remaining land crossings.

United States Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology -- the program’s full name -- is now in place at 154 land crossings, 15 seaports and the 115 airports that handle international travel. At these checkpoints, including six in California that include Los Angeles International Airport and the Tijuana-San Ysidro land crossing, visitors must pose for a digital photo and let border agents take digital impressions of their index fingers.

But not everyone who passes through is subject to the program. U.S. citizens, Canadians, most Mexicans, permanent legal residents and diplomats are exempt, so of the 90 million people who passed through an airport or seaport in 2004, only 42% had to stop to have their data recorded.

At land crossings, where 335 million people entered the United States in 2004, that figure dropped to 1%, said Anna Hinken, a US-VISIT spokeswoman.

“From a national security perspective, the problem isn’t so much that Mexicans and Canadians aren’t screened, but that a terrorist group or someone a lot more dangerous than a Mexican busboy will show up,” Vaughan said. “If someone from Riyadh figures out they can come through from Mexico with a stolen card, they could probably get through.”

Another potential flaw is that, apart from a few pilot programs, US-VISIT does not yet track visitors as they leave. That shortcoming handicaps the program’s national security function as well as its role as an immigration tool, as visa overstays are estimated to account for up to half of illegal immigrants.

“You need both an exit feature as well as an entry feature,” Ervin said. “Unless you have both ends, the system still isn’t operational.”

In early December, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff offered no timetable for beefing up exit tracking. “I have to say it’s a complicated question,” Chertoff said at a news conference. “We’ve got some pilot programs. We want to evaluate the utility and what we may want to do to retool that process.”

Some critics charge that Homeland Security has dragged its feet on an exit program, saying the department doesn’t want to know how many visa violators there are because it lacks the resources to track them down.

Defending the department, Hinken said Homeland Security faces the challenge of creating a tracking system where none existed before. Unlike many other European and Asian countries, the U.S. has not required international travelers to go through immigration checkpoints as they depart.

“It’s a building block, we have to start somewhere,” said Hinken of pilot exit programs at 13 airports and five land crossings. “In the coming year, we’ll evaluate. [At airports] the answer might not be a workstation, it might be part of the checkout process. We believe in testing so we don’t roll out something that doesn’t work and holds up traffic.”

Since January 2004, the US-VISIT system has processed 44 million people and has snared 970 people with criminal or immigration violations. Apparently, no one was stopped for ties to terrorism.

Among problems being worked out is the system’s incompatibility with the FBI fingerprint database. Homeland Security is revising its fingerprinting practices.

Congress first ordered the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service to develop a way to track entries and exits in 1996, after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Pressure to create the program surged again after the terrorist attacks in 2001, with both Congress and the Sept. 11 commission calling a tracking system “essential.”

But even before its debut in 2004, US-VISIT encountered criticism. In 2003, the General Accounting Office called the program “risky” because its costs could escalate rapidly. Although it has racked up a $1-billion price tag to date, some estimates put the final cost as high as $14 billion.