This week the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has begun implementation of the US VISIT Program (U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology), a long-awaited tracking program which will require millions of foreign visitors to submit biometric information—consisting of digital fingerscans and a digital photograph — upon arrival in the United States. This information will then be checked against existing immigration and criminal databases to determine admissibility. By using universally applied biometric technology rather than subjective screening measures at the border, US VISIT offers some hope for taking much-needed steps to enhance border security in ways that lessen intrusions on personal privacy and engage in crude racial profiling of foreign visitors. However, serious concerns have been raised. A closer look reveals:
US VISIT is now in effect at only 115 airports and 14 seaports across the country, leaving very large weaknesses in border security. Up to four million visitors will remain untracked upon arrival at land ports of entry (POEs). DHS plans to expand US VISIT to the 50 highest-volume land POEs by 2005, and all land POEs by 2006.
US VISIT was mandated by Congress to be a full-scale entry/exit tracking program, yet it currently does virtually nothing to track visitors exiting the country. Border security will remain porous if visitors are tracked upon entry but not upon departure.
Many say current DHS deadlines for full implementation are unworkable, especially the travel industry which predicts significant delays for visitors in the coming months.
Citizens of 27 countries—including many European nations, Japan, and Canada—are not subject to US VISIT if they are visiting for less than 90 days, leaving open yet another vulnerability that terrorists like the “shoe bomber” (a British citizen) can exploit.
- US VISIT requirements have caused tensions with foreign governments and have already invited reciprocal actions, highlighted by the recent decision of a Brazilian judge to subject all Americans to registration upon arrival in Brazil, in direct response to US VISIT. Moreover, the program has been inadequately explained to the traveling public= More public outreach and diplomacy efforts should be undertaken.
- Long-standing concerns about data mining and informational privacy are heightened with US VISIT, as DHS is in the process of combining all immigration databases into one central system that can be accessed by federal, state, and local law enforcement officials. DHS has stated that US VISIT will be used for law enforcement matters far beyond preventing terrorism, including enforcing criminal law and intelligence gathering.
- DHS’ privacy office admits privacy risks exist in US VISIT, warranting the need for strict controls. Even though advanced technology like biometrics can be helpful, all databases are controlled by human hands and are subject to abuse. DHS’ immigration data has been proven to be significantly error-laden—larger databases only raise more concerns.
- US VISIT is premised on fingerprint technology, the reliability of which has been called into question by a number of authorities, including federal and state judges.
- The retention of large amounts of data in US VISIT databases stands in stark contrast to Attorney General John Ashcroft’s decision to destroy all records of background checks on gun purchases after one day, citing gun owners’ privacy and potential misuse of data. The data collected in the US VISIT system may need to be retained for a longer period, but should be kept only as long as needed for legitimate law enforcement purposes.
Secretary Tom Ridge announced in May 2003 that US VISIT would replace NSEERS. However, despite inaccurate press reports last month, NSEERS is alive and well, meaning that certain immigrants will be subject to Special Registration and US VISIT. Meanwhile, efforts to deport nearly 14,000 predominately Arab and Muslim men targeted through NSEERS—none of whom has been charged with terrorism—remain active.