Monday, October 27, 2003

Officials will roll out ambitious new technology today to track visitors to the United States as they enter and leave the country, and eventually verify their identity with electronic scanners that will check fingerprints and other biometric data.

Together with machine-readable, tamper-proof visas and a huge computer database of names, fingerprints and photographs, the Department of Homeland Security hopes to be able to check the identity — and record the arrival and departure — of every one of the more than 440 million annual visitors to the United States.

The goal is to create a seamless web through which terrorists and others seeking to enter the country illegally cannot pass.

Known as U.S.-VISIT, for United States-Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, the system will be deployed first at airports and seaports, where about 82 million foreign travelers arrived in 2002.

The system, which will go online on Oct. 26, 2004, already has cost the Department of Homeland Security $362 million and is budgeted for $330 million more in 2004. By that date, all 211 U.S. visa-issuing posts must be using the technology.

But the eventual cost could be much more if applied to the nearly 360 million annual visitors who enter or leave by land, as that leave would require an entirely new infrastructure.

A report by the departments of State and Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in January 2003 estimated the total cost for a seamless biometric border-control system at about $3.8 billion over six years.

“Funding is always an issue,” said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security, told an audience at the German Marshall Institute yesterday.

He said that the airport and seaport system was funded fully, but that the department would have to ask Congress for more money to extend the program to cover land crossings.

“It’s an aggressive deployment schedule,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Janice L. Jacobs said, although she added that she expects the schedule to be met because the State Department has used the technology since April 1998 to issue border-crossing cards to Mexican citizens.

Mr. Hutchinson will introduce the new U.S.-VISIT technology at the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in downtown Washington today, but the State Department yesterday showed the technology to United Press International.

The fingerprint scanners — an off-white box about the size of a brick with a small window on the top at one end — cost about $500 each.

The applicant places a finger on the window, and a digital image of their print is captured. The print is then stored, along with his or her photograph and the other application information, in the Consular Consolidated Database.

“It’s a fairly simple process,” Miss Jacobs said. “It takes maybe 20 to 30 seconds.”

The CCD is constantly updated and contains information on 70 million U.S. visa holders. Beginning in January 2004, when U.S.-VISIT begins being implemented, that information will be available to Homeland Security officials at ports of entry.

U.S.-VISIT faces “significant management challenges,” according to the General Accounting Office. The GAO also expressed doubts about how effective the system will be, because it will not cover the millions of citizens from 27 countries, mainly Canada and European nations, who enter every year under the visa-waiver program.

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