By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 15, 2006
U.S. homeland security officials are preparing to abandon plans to develop a system to track the departure of foreign visitors at land borders, citing cost and technical obstacles in scaling back a major post-Sept. 11 domestic security initiative, officials said.
Launched in 2004, US-VISIT was designed to automate the tracking of visitors upon entry and exit from the United States, using fingerprints and digital photographs to help find criminals, potential terrorists and visitors who illegally overstay.
The system, which has cost $1.7 billion so far, recorded 61 million people entering the country as of July through 115 airports, 15 seaports and 154 of 170 land ports.
But pilot projects have recorded only about 4 million people leaving the country, and US-VISIT officials have concluded that technology and personnel "cannot now be implemented" at land crossings without major delays in the flow of cross-border traffic, or without enormous cost to expand facilities, roads and communications links, according to a congressional report released yesterday.
"The department is looking at strategies for US-VISIT exit that are the most cost effective, and we are examining strategies for implementation at air and sea ports," said Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. "We are also looking at land ports. However, there are costs associated, including the physical infrastructure as well as the economic impact, and we are in the process of evaluating all that data now."
Several homeland security officials said a final decision has yet to be made, but that, given the limited time and resources, the department intends to focus on expanding US-VISIT at airports, where the majority of visa holders exit the country. Although land ports register about 309 million border crossings a year, compared with 87 million airport crossings, the majority of land crossers are repeat travelers and Mexican, Canadian and U.S. citizens who do not need visas.
"It comes down to, we have to get at this elephant in chunks," one senior official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because a formal decision has not been announced. "It's a recognition that over the short term, over the next couple of years, you can't do an exit system, holistically, land borders and air. Which one do you get more bang for your buck? It's air."
In comments reported by the New York Times and confirmed by Agen, DHS assistant secretary for policy Stewart A. Baker said a land-border exit system would cost "tens of billions of dollars," which he called daunting.
A report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress's audit arm, said it would cost $3 billion and take five to 10 years to implement a biometric system to confirm visitors' identities upon exit. But there is a December 2007 deadline for phasing it in at 50 major land crossings.
US-VISIT has captured 1,100 criminals using false documents, DHS officials said. They said other programs underway to integrate homeland security and FBI fingerprint databases -- which automatically generate risk assessments on travelers and track down immigration violators -- are offsetting the potential value of an exit system.
"Knowing that bad guys have left the country is important, but knowing the bad guy is coming in is more important," one DHS official said. "We want to do it, but it is not as high a priority as the entry piece of it."
The United States is testing the use of radio frequency identification technology -- involving tiny microchips with a unique code embedded in a tag on visitors' departure forms -- instead of a fingerprint or facial-scan system. But a January 2006 test correctly identified only 16 percent of 166 vehicles with RFID tags. Among the tags' drawbacks is that they cannot be physically tied to an individual.