DHS faces US-VISIT implementation issues

The Homeland Security Department is unlikely to meet the July 1, 2009, statutory deadline to implement the US-VISIT exit system to biometrically record the departures of air travelers from other countries, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program collects fingerprints from incoming visitors but currently does not record the visitors' departures. Under a proposal earlier this year, DHS said airlines should collect the fingerprints of the visitors leaving by air. However, airlines have strongly opposed the idea and it is unlikely to be deployed by the deadline, the GAO concluded.

Accenture Ltd., the prime contractor for US-VISIT, was informed by DHS in August that the department intends to continue its contractual agreement with the company after the five-year base period expires in May 2009. The original contract contained five one-year options.

The lack of a program to biometrically track visitor departures from the United States is one of several problems standing in the way of DHS officials' plans to expand the Visa Waiver program to additional countries, the GAO report said.

Under legislative requirements, DHS must certify that it has certain capabilities in place to maintain its authority to expand the visa waiver program.

The department must certify that a system is in place that can verify the departure of not less than 97 percent of foreign nationals who depart through U.S. airports. The US-VISIT biometric exit system is intended to do that, but it probably will not go forward.

"It is unlikely that DHS will implement a biometric air exit system before July 2009, due to opposition from the airline industry," the GAO report said.

Even if the airlines agreed to the plans, there are shortcomings to the DHS' approach because it does not identify visa overstays and does not address deficiencies in departure data, the GAO said.

Also, the department will face difficulties in implementing the Electronic System for Travel Authorization by its planned Jan. 12, 2009, implementation date.

Under the travel authorization system, which went into effect on a voluntary basis on Aug. 1, foreign visitors traveling by air and without a visa must submit data 72 hours prior to departure. A Federal Register notice that announces the implementation is expected to be published in November.

However, DHS may face challenges in informing the public and travel industry about the new requirements by January, the GAO said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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