Senators criticize DHS over foreign visitor system

Continued delays in plans to enable checks of foreign
visitors’ identities as they exit the country are a sign that
such efforts ought to be postponed until a new administration takes
office next year, according to a June 23 report from the Senate Appropriations
Committee. The work is part of an effort by the Bush administration
to enhance the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator
Technology program.


”It is the committee’s conclusion that a robust
entry/exit program must wait for the next administration to
execute,” the report states.


Last month, the committee halved the Homeland Security
Department’s fiscal 2009 budget for US-VISIT, allocating only
$180 million instead of the $390 million requested. The committee
said the cut was necessary because the program already has a
backlog of unspent funding from the current fiscal year.


US-VISIT is a biometric identification program that collects
fingerprints from foreigners when they apply for visas to visit the
United States. Those fingerprints are screened against various
databases to keep out suspected terrorists and wanted criminals.
Upon arrival in the United States, the visitors’ fingerprints
are verified. In the exit program, the fingerprints are to be
verified again when visitors leave the country.


Late delivery of a fiscal 2008 spending plan to Congress has
held up a backlog of $125 million in unspent fiscal 2008 funding
for US-VISIT. In the report, the committee said the department has
not lived up to its expectations.


“It is now the third quarter of the fiscal year and the
committee only received the US-VISIT expenditure plan, which is
required by law to be reviewed by the Government Accountability
Office, on June 12, 2008,” the report states. “Until
the fiscal year 2008 plan is reviewed by the GAO and approved by
the Committees on Appropriations, $125 million remains unavailable
for obligation. Under the best of circumstances, these funds likely
will not become available for obligation until
September.”


Furthermore, the Senate committee said it had approved a $13
million expense last fall to speed up an air and sea exit program
for US-VISIT that did not produce the desired result. “As for
expediting the air and sea exit solution, publication of the Notice
of Proposed Rulemaking for air exit was delayed until April 22,
2008,” the report states.


Under that rulemaking, airlines would be responsible for
collecting and verifying fingerprints when visitors exit the
country, which many airlines have opposed.


It is not the first time senators have attempted to trim
US-VISIT's funding. They proposed cuts to the program last year and
later restored funding. Lawmakers are expected to vote on the
fiscal 2009 spending bill next month. The House Appropriations
Committee approved the full $390 million for US-VISIT.



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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