The fingerprinting is part of the U.S. Visit program, an IT-based system aimed at tracking the comings and goings of foreign nationals entering and leaving the country.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

March 4, 2003

4 Min Read

Foreign visitors arriving at U.S. airports or seaports beginning next year will have their travel documents scanned, fingerprints and photos taken, and identification checked against terrorist watch lists.

Homeland Security undersecretary Asa Hutchinson on Monday released details of the department's new U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indication Technology, or U.S. Visit, which will check the comings and goings of certain foreign travelers.

The checks will apply to people who arrive in this country carrying visas, said Hutchinson, who oversees Border and Transportation Security. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge unveiled the program in late April.

Hutchinson said U.S. Visit will create a "virtual border" situated far beyond the land boundaries of the United States. "Under U.S. Visit," he said in prepared remarks, "we will eventually have information on our visitors--collected at our consular officers far from our borders--that will confirm identity, measure security risks, and assess the legitimacy of travel of visitors to the U.S. Through this virtual border, we will know who violates our entry requirements, who overstays or violates the terms of their stay, and who should be welcome again."

Beginning Jan. 1, the government will require foreigners entering the country to present identification that contains at least two types of biometric identifiers--initially, fingerprints and digital photographs. "Later, as the technology is perfected," Hutchinson said, "additional forms such as facial recognition or iris scans may be used as well."

Hutchison said the government won't build its own biometric systems but will adopt those developed by the private sector, adding that requests for proposals will be issued no later than this fall.

Foreigners entering the country will have their travel documents scanned, Hutchinson said. Once border agents photograph and fingerprint visitors, they'll be checked against a list of individuals who should be denied entry for a number of reasons, including terrorist connections, criminal violations, and past visa violations. In all but 0.1% of cases, he said, the visitors will be allowed to enter the country. "But with that small percentage of hits," Hutchinson said, "our country will be made much safer, and our immigration system will be given a foundation of integrity that has been lacking for too long."

When visitors depart, the government will verify their identities and capture departure information. "This tells the Department of Homeland Security if that person entered legally may have stayed illegally, as the 9/11 terrorists did," Hutchinson said. "Currently, there is no way to know when or even if our visitors leave--but under U.S. Visit, that will change."

U.S. Visit will be able to track changes in immigration status and make updates and adjustments accordingly. For example, he said, the system should track a foreign visitor who enters on a 90-day tourist visa but must stay for an emergency medical reason.

Congress has appropriated nearly $400 million this year to begin implementing U.S. Visit at U.S. airports and seaports.

Hutchinson also said an IT system borne from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and implemented in February has identified nearly 3,000 foreign nationals who entered the country to study at American colleges and universities but have since dropped out, potentially violating their visas.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service, prior to its absorption into the Department of Homeland Security, created the Student Exchange Visitor Information System, known as Sevis, to disseminate information about foreign students held in databases at U.S. colleges and universities and transmit that data over the Internet to federal computers.

"It's a powerful tool for combating fraud," Hutchinson said. "To date, nearly 3,000 no-show students have been reported to ICE [the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement], allowing us to determine whether they have violated the law or pose a security risk. Most do not, of course, but the point is, we cannot rely on guess work anymore."

The government delayed implementing Sevis for several weeks because of server slowdowns that occurred as hundreds of colleges tried logging on to the system. Many schools spent tens of thousands--even hundreds of thousands--of dollars to get their ERP and other student-tracking systems and databases to provide information to the government on foreign students' course schedules, whereabouts, and income sources.

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