Inching forward

DHS, Accenture mull newest U.S. Visit plan to track visa holders leaving country

Ten years after Congress ordered tracking of entries and exits by foreign visitors to the United States, the exit control plan may be moving forward, but also may be less comprehensive than expected.

To date, the Homeland Security Department has been fairly quiet about plans for the exit part of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (U.S. Visit) program, which collects personal and biometric information on all incoming visa holders. In three years, it has processed about 64 million visitors upon entry.

"DHS has been very coy about its plans for the exit program," said Jessica Vaughan, senior policy analyst for the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank. "It is not a lack of technology, it's a lack of will."

But the inactivity may be ending. An exit plan that U.S. Visit officials last month submitted to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is now under review, said DHS spokeswoman Kimberly Weissman.

"We are working on implementing a comprehensive exit plan [for U.S. Visit]. Because it is still under review, there are no specific details to be released at this time," Weissman said.

Officials at U.S. Visit prime contractor Accenture Ltd. declined to comment. Accenture leads the Smart Border Alliance, which in May 2003 won the contract to develop the U.S. Visit systems. The three lead subcontractors on Accenture's project team are L-3 Titan Group of Reston, Va., Raytheon Co. of Waltham, Mass., and SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va.

Major money

If the exit portion of U.S. Visit gets off the ground, its price tag, estimated between $1 billion and $10 billion, would make it one of the largest federal IT projects around. But there is controversy about whether a comprehensive exit program for all visa holders would be worth the cost. What might be more realistic, the argument goes, is a targeted risk approach that focuses on a small percentage of visa holders.

"It is unrealistic to try to account for 100 percent of the people," said James Jay Carafano, senior fellow for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation. "It should be risk-based rather than one size fits all."

Still, at a time when immigration and border control are in the daily headlines, it surprises some observers that the United States has no way to track when and where a visa holder leaves the country or has complied with the visa's terms.

"If you are issuing time-limited visas but have no way of tracking the departures, what is the point?" Vaughan said.

Past and present U.S. Visit officials share in the frustration. Jim Williams, former director of U.S. Visit, told Washington Technology recently that he wished the program was further along. Williams left DHS to become commissioner of the Federal Acquisitions Service at the General Services Administration.

Many governments, including Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore, track entries and exits of all visitors. In 1996, three years after the first attack on the World Trade Center, Congress asked immigration officials to set up such systems in the United States.

In 2003, DHS was created, encompassing immigration programs, and U.S. Visit debuted, built on legacy computer systems. By December 2004, U.S. Visit entry procedures were deployed at air and seaports and at the 50 busiest land ports.
Since January 2004, the department has done pilot exit programs, which over time expanded to include 12 airports, two seaports and five land ports.

But results of those exit tests were mixed, said at least one executive familiar with them.

At the airports, for example, departing visa holders were told to deposit forms in a standalone kiosk to indicate their exit. Penalties for failing to comply included possible questioning by U.S. authorities.
Compliance rates were more than "50 percent, but not in the 80s or 90s," according to the executive, who asked to remain unidentified.

Major issues

A big problem at the airports is the lack of infrastructure, personnel and space for installing and operating exit control stations. Another problem is the great difficulty in reconfiguring airport operations to embed an exit component for the Transportation Security Administration, customs, visa holders and immigration, the executive said.

At the land borders, DHS tested a system in which it assigns foreign visitors a Form I-94 with a radio frequency identification tag. As of Dec. 31, 2005, U.S. Visit had issued 149,414 such forms to travelers. Upon leaving the United States, the RFID tag on the I-94 is scanned to record the person's departure.

However, in practice, the test presented numerous technical challenges in correctly recording I-94 forms that may be tucked into a briefcase or pocket or carried in vehicles traveling up to 50 miles per hour, the executive said.

With unresolved technical and policy issues, designing a comprehensive exit strategy for U.S. Visit is complex, the executive said.

"It is a fairly significant problem," the executive said, "and will demand a substantial investment. Even if the technology were available, the country has never had an inspection process [before exiting] at the airports or the borders."

Because of such problems, DHS officials are likely to propose a limited exit program rather than a comprehensive one, he said.

Other observers said that such caution is justified, given the scale of the effort involved to track visitor exits and the likely high cost of the endeavor.

"I don't think we are even close to a solution," Carafano said. "People have not thought through all the variations of how to do this."

Even if the information on exits were collected successfully, it is not clear whether anything could be done immediately to pursue visa holders who have overstayed their visits.

"Congress has made this a simplistic requirement divorced from reality," Carafano said.

But other experts, including the Center for Immigration Studies' Vaughan, disagree.
"The idea that this is undoable is simply silly, when you consider the technology that is available," she said.

Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at alipowicz@postnewsweektech.com.

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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