Williams: Much heavy lifting remains with U.S. Visit
- By Roseanne Gerin
- Oct 24, 2006
When James Williams joined the General Services Administration in June to become commissioner of its new Federal Acquisition Service, he left behind some unfinished work on the $1.1 billion U.S.Visit program at the Homeland Security Department.
Williams, who served as the first director of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program for about three years, said in an interview with Washington Technology that he did not manage to put in place the project's exit system or make more progress with the land-border aspect of the program.
The U.S. Visit program is an immigration and border management project that uses biometric technologies to collect information on visitors who enter the country and then shares it with other relevant agencies. The program also is intended to collect information on visitors when they leave the country, but the rollout of the exit function has been delayed. The total system should eventually link together all the databases within the exit function.
While Williams was program director of U.S. Visit, he oversaw a successful creation and rollout of the highly controversial program that DHS developed to detect criminals, terrorists and sex offenders and prevent them from illegally entering the country, while making it easier for legitimate visitors to come in. He kept the program on track in meeting its congressionally imposed deadlines for rollout.
When asked about what he did not accomplish with the U.S. Visit program, Williams said that he wanted to move faster in rolling out more of the exit system and make more progress with a land-border system.
As part of the U.S. Visit program, Williams was tasked with establishing a complete entry-exit system, but the separate exit phase got pushed back.
"We don't have the infrastructure in this country for an exit system today," that international visitors would pass through immigration service at foreign departure airports instead of the airport at which they first arrive in the United States, Williams said.
The U.S. Visit team was trying to put in place a system in airports that would identify people when they left the country as well as trying to come up with a solution for sea and land solution at the same time, he said.
"We were making progress there, and I was pleased with it," he said. "I just wish that we were farther along to know when people did or did not leave the country."
Earlier this year, the U.S. Visit program's 15 pilots of exit technology had low compliance rates. Most travelers at the pilot sites believed there would be no enforcement if they did not check out of the country using the exit kiosks and no punishment, Williams said at a Congressional hearing in February.
While at DHS, Williams also wanted to introduce a system at the country's land borders with Canada and Mexico that could quickly identify people crossing into the United States, especially those who came here to do business.
"If you look at our land borders, they are economic choke points," Williams said. "In our global or North American competitiveness, I didn't like seeing trucks and cars lined up waiting to get into the United States and do business."
About 500 million people cross through the country's land borders each year, with about 350 million of them coming in from Canada and Mexico, Williams said.
Williams estimates that when he left DHS, the U.S. Visit program had processed about 50 million people and detected more than 1,200 murderers, rapists, drug traffickers, sex predators and terror suspects.
After Williams left DHS, Robert Mocny, his former deputy director of U.S. Visit, became acting director of the program. Mocny has picked up where Williams left off and is overseeing the installation of radio frequency identification device readers that can receive data from electronic passports. The units will compare and authenticate data in the e-passports issued by the State Department and countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program. DHS plans to install the reader units at some of the major ports of entry that account for the majority of border traffic.
DHS officials have said the program will meet Congress' Oct. 26 deadline for fielding the readers at ports of entry. The State Department started issuing e-passports to the general public earlier this year.
DHS is also moving ahead with Secretary Michael Chertoff's plans to expand the U.S. Visit program by taking 10 fingerprints from each visitor instead of two prints to enables immigration officials to perform more thorough background checks on those trying to enter the country. It also is making progress towards fully integrating its data systems with those of the FBI.