Crews sent to help smooth U.S. Visit launch

The Homeland Security Department sent computer technicians to 115 airports and 14 seaports nationwide to shepherd the launch of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology system.

The tech team of roughly 150 was drawn from the department's own IT staff as well as from DHS contractors.

Homeland Security in mid-November started testing the U.S. Visit system at Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. "Then we expanded it to other locations from December 22 to yesterday," said Shonnie Lyon, director of increment management for the program. "What we learned from the pilots is that if we had a technical person on the ground, it was very beneficial."

DHS launched the first operational stage of U.S. Visit at 5 a.m. EST. By 8 a.m., the system had processed about 3,000 travelers, Lyon said.

During the pilot phase at Hartsfield, border inspectors recorded about 20 hits when running the fingerprint and information from visitors against the government's collection of data about known terrorists and people with criminal histories. Some of the hits indicated that travelers had warrants out for their arrest, and one match turned up a fugitive who had failed to appear in court.

In cases where local police declined to extradite the individuals, DHS officials returned the travelers to their country of origin. Several of the travelers whose fingerprints generated hits on the U.S. Visit system had been using multiple identities, DHS officials said. A traveler detected at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport had entered the country about 60 times over the past five years using three aliases, Lyon said.

"U.S. Visit represents the greatest improvement in border inspection in more than three decades and is a shining example of what we can achieve when government works together," Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security, said in a statement.

Border officials get a green or a red light indication on their computer for each traveler, Lyon said. When the system records a hit, officials transfer the traveler to a secondary inspection area. The U.S. Visit system lets DHS users verify a fingerprint hit by sending the information to a biometric support center where fingerprint examiners check the correlation of fingerprints in the databases with those recorded at the border sites.

Identification specialists rate fingerprints on a quality scale from one to eight, with eight being the highest quality, Lyon said. During the pilot, the U.S. Visit system generated fingerprints at a quality level of five or above 80 percent of the time, he said.

The request for proposal for the U.S. Visit contract was released at the end of November. The Homeland Security Department anticipates awarding the contract ? worth anywhere between $7 billion and more than $20 billion over 10 years, according to the General Accounting Office ? in May.

Three teams of contractors are in the running for the project. The team leaders are Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md., Computer Sciences Corp. of El Segundo, Calif. and Accenture Ltd. of Hamilton, Bermuda.

Wilson P. Dizard III writes for Government Computer News magazine.

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