Senators lean toward budget boost for U.S. Visit

The Homeland Security Department's flagship program for tracking travelers at ports of entry could get an early funding boost to help coordinate fingerprint databases because influential Senate Appropriations Committee members are looking for faster results.

"We took a run at getting $1 billion more for border security in [the most recent] defense appropriations [bill]," Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, said in a hearing yesterday. We are going to take another run. There will be a supplemental [appropriations bill] before [the main Homeland Security Department appropriations] bill."

Gregg made his comments in favor of a funding increase for the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator System amid a discussion among himself, ranking minority member Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Jim Williams, the border project's program manager, about progress in the coordination of DHS' two-finger IDENT database and the FBI's 10-fingerprint Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System.

DHS secretary Michael Chertoff announced last year that the department would soon begin to require travelers to provide 10 fingerprints when they seek visas and enter the country.

Williams testified that U.S. Visit officials have been making progress in coordinating biometric information-sharing among DHS databases and those used by the FBI and State Department. He said that several new categories of fingerprint information, which apply to various groups of criminals and other people who should be stopped at the border or before they enter the country, recently have been added to the types of information DHS receives from the FBI.

Gregg and Byrd pressed Williams on how much progress is being made, and elicited the response from Williams that "an initial operating capability" of the IDENT and IAFIS coordination would begin in the fall. Williams added that DHS officials plan to go to full operating capability in 2007.

Meanwhile, a separate phase of the U.S. Visit program designed to test technology for recording the exit of travelers is having problems, according to testimony at the hearing. The program's four pilots of exit technology have been plagued by low compliance rates, according to testimony. Most travelers at the pilot sites believe that there will be no discipline or punishment for not checking out of the country via the U.S. Visit exit kiosks, Williams said.

Williams testified that one of the keys to improving exit system compliance rates in the pilots was enforcement, which the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency carried out at one pilot site. "When ICE took enforcement action, our compliance rates went up," Williams said. The enforcement action by ICE at an unspecified location spurred compliance rates to rise from low levels to about 90 percent of travelers, Williams said.

Williams added that U.S. Visit already has started to produce information that has been useful to ICE officials seeking to track down foreigners who have overstayed their visas, a capability that former border systems lacked. "ICE has made over 100 arrests" as the result of information that U.S. Visit has provided on the overstay problem, Williams said.

Wilson P. Dizard III is a staff writer for Washington Technology's sister publication, Government Computer News.

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