US-VISIT has unfinished business: GAO

The Homeland Security Department's strategy for creating unique biometric identities for individuals under the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) is incomplete, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In a 65-page report, GAO discussed the new Unique Identity strategy DHS is implementing. The program collects 10 fingerprints from foreign visitors who travel to the United States on a visa.

The goal is to establish unique identities "for all individuals who interact with any immigration and border management organization by capturing the individual's biometrics, including 10 fingerprints and a digital image, at the earliest possible interaction," GAO auditors wrote. The first interaction might be when the individual applies for a visa to visit the United States or when he or she applies for immigration benefits. It was not clear whether U.S. citizens would be affected.

However, Unique Identity is not complete without a strategy for verifying the exit of such individuals from the United States, GAO said. That strategy has not been delivered to date, the report states. DHS officials have told Congress in the past that such a strategy could be prohibitively expensive.

Furthermore, the department was late in developing Unique Identity and did so after having already allocated $65 million to alternative solutions.

"The program office did not economically justify its investment in Unique Identity until about 14 months after selecting and pursuing an alternative solution and obligating about $65 million," the GAO report states.

Overall, GAO judged US-VISIT to be partially successful in developing a more strategic vision. Although the program has focused on short-term goals, the next step is to be more comprehensive.

DHS is working to coordinate relationships between US-VISIT and other immigration and border programs, such as the Secure Border Initiative and the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). The department has defined common outcomes through its strategic plan and enterprise architecture and has worked to share resources and develop metrics.

However, those actions are incomplete and run the risk of not reaching performance goals, GAO said.

"The US-VISIT program office has yet to fully define either its relationships with WHTI and SBInet or its approaches relative to addressing outcomes shared by all three programs," the report states. "As a result, the department risks suboptimizing how these programs collectively support its immigration and border management goals and objectives."

DHS officials generally agreed with the recommendations and are taking action to remedy the concerns, GAO said.

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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