Davis asks DHS for more info on U.S. Visit

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., in a March 15 letter asked Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge for assurances that border crossing cards are an acceptable substitute for the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator System at the U.S. border with Mexico.

The department recently decided to exempt holders of border crossing cards from enrolling in U.S. Visit, the entry-exit system for foreign travelers.

U.S. Visit operates in 115 U.S. airports and 14 seaports, where people entering the country on a visa are digitally fingerprinted and photographed. That biometric information is compared with law enforcement and intelligence databases to identify those who may be security threats. The system will expand to land border posts in 2005 and 2006.

More than 100 million Mexican citizens hold border crossing cards, which allow them to enter the United States temporarily to work or visit relatives, Homeland Security official Asa Hutchinson said at a March 4 hearing of the House Government Reform Committee. Davis chairs the committee.

"We are not creating security problems with the Mexican cards. We have already decided [through a screening process] they are not terrorists," Hutchinson testified at the hearing. Hutchinson is under secretary of border and transportation security.

In his letter, Davis said he wants to know whether there are enough card readers to make use of the border crossing cards effective. Davis also said he wants the card readers to be integrated into the existing database collection systems.

"Allowing people to use the BCC to cross the border without enrolling in U.S. Visit may be a good temporary solution for the concerns many express about the potential crowds at the border when U.S. Visit is implemented," Davis wrote. "Unfortunately, since the card has been issued, it has not always been properly scanned and authenticated as it was originally intended."

The card contains an optical strip that can hold a person's raw fingerprint data, a record of entries and exits, Customs and Border Patrol Officers' comments and other information. When used with a fingerprint scanner, the customs officer can ensure that the person holding the card is the person to whom the card was issued. On March 11, DHS officials said card readers would be put in place at the 50 busiest land ports of entry by the end of June.

Davis also asked Ridge to answer by March 29 numerous questions about the U.S. Visit program, including how the public is being educated about it, if the prime contractor for the U.S. Visit program will be selected on time, when Congress will get information on U.S. Visit processing times, how the department is ensuring that information in DHS and State Department databases is shared, and how DHS plans to ensure that U.S. Visit processing moves quickly during the peak summer travel period.

According to Input Inc., a Reston, Va., government information technology market research firm, the prime contractor for U.S. Visit should be selected in May.

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