US-VISIT About to Be Another Obama Casualty

By Janice Kephart on February 27, 2012

As the Obama administration continues to try to convince the American people they are securing the borders, their most recent budget request makes clear that "Amnesty by Any Means" remains the consistent mission. The latest installment is a buried in the president's homeland security budget, which includes provisions dotted throughout that, put together, would result in the dismantling of arguably the best border-related program that exists in federal government, US-VISIT, burying its capabilities in two of the most politicized of all government agencies, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Right now, US-VISIT plays a vital role in recording biometrics at our borders, identifying terrorists on watchlists, supporting law enforcement investigations in all layers of government, apprehending alien smugglers on land and at sea, weeding out bogus immigration applications from legitimate ones, and helping set up biometric capabilities in other nations. One program of note where US-VISIT is pivotal is Secure Communities, which Obama touts as his big enforcement tool. Yet US-VISIT could very well be stripped of its wide applications in the areas of law enforcement and intelligence by simply breaking up the office that runs it – about 400 employees on a $279 million budget – and stuffing it into border functions whose priorities have never aligned with US-VISIT's mission to be innovative in technology that serves many government customers. The administration may claim it is creating efficiencies, but by breaking up a tight organization that has become a model for supporting immigration and law enforcement, US-VISIT just looks like it could be just another Obama casualty – if Congress fails to stop the president's action.

ICE Director John Morton is the linchpin of the administration's "no enforcement/amnesty" policy, while the Border Patrol in CBP is doing the bidding of its matriarch, Janet Napolitano, in (not) securing the border. In contrast, US-VISIT has thrived because of its independence and the resulting ability to build relationships across federal, state, and local governments without significant intrusion from the politics that haunts ICE and CBP. Broken up, US-VISIT components would likely begin to stagnate in the political wasteland of issues like "comprehensive immigration reform" and amnesty, issues from which US-VISIT to date has remained relatively separate.

Here are the relevant excerpts from the Department of Homeland Security's "Budget-in-Brief" summary. From p. 7:

The FY 2013 President's Budget supports these significant efforts to increase transparency, accountability, and efficiency. Following are some key initiatives and proposals included in the Budget that continue to streamline Departmental operations:

  • US-VISIT: In order to better align the functions of US-VISIT with the operational components, the Budget proposes the transfer of US-VISIT functions from the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

From p. 55:

To better align mission activities with operational Components, the FY 2013 Budget transfers US-VISIT functions from the National Protection and Programs Directorate to CBP and ICE by October 1, 2012. US-VISIT functions naturally align with the current missions of CBP and ICE….

Transfer of Functions
Pending enactment, CBP will assume responsibility for the core US-VISIT operations and management of the biometric and biographic information storage and matching and watchlist management services. ICE will assume responsibility of the US-VISIT overstay analysis services.

From p. 86:

Transfer from NPPD to CBP of United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT)……………………………….. $261.5M (338 FTE)
In FY 2013, responsibility for the core US-VISIT operations, including the management of the biometric storage and matching service, will be transferred from NPPD to CBP to align US-VISIT's operations with CBP's mission at the border and the collection of airline departure information. US-VISIT leads the collection, storage, and sharing of biometric and biographic identity information on foreign visitors seeking entry into the United States and other immigration benefits, as well as on U.S. citizens applying for access to government sites, programs, and critical infrastructure.

From p. 100:

Transfer of Overstay Analysis from US-VISIT to ICE…........$17.6M (78 FTE)
This request transfers the visa overstay analysis function from the National Protections and Programs Directorate to ICE in order to align US-VISIT operations with ICE's overstay enforcement mission.

According to the DHS website, the department is well aware that US-VISIT is far from an entity that simply feeds CBP and ICE, even if US-VISIT's origin began with verifying identity through biometrics at ports of entry. DHS touts the capabilities of US-VISIT on its website as follows:

Government Agencies Using US-VISIT

US-VISIT's use of biometrics has helped strengthen U.S. immigration and border security to a level that did not exist before.

Every day, 30,000 authorized federal, state and local government users query US-VISIT's data in order to accurately identify people and determine whether they pose a risk to the United States. US-VISIT supplies the technology for collecting and storing biometric data, provides analysis of the data to decision makers, and ensures the integrity of the data.

By using biometrics, US-VISIT is helping to prevent the use of fraudulent documents, protect visitors from identity theft and stop thousands of criminals and immigration violators from entering the country.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement receives information from US-VISIT to identify those who may have overstayed terms of their admission. US-VISIT matches entry and exit records and provides this information to ICE. This enhanced information-sharing process provides an increased capability to identify and apprehend overstays – a critical tool with which to manage the immigration and border system.

Before US-VISIT, international travelers who overstayed their authorized period of admission were only identified as a consequence of some other encounter with law enforcement.

U.S. Coast Guard uses US-VISIT biometrics-based services at sea to apprehend and prosecute illegal migrants and migrant smugglers. The Coast Guard uses mobile biometric collection devices – handheld scanners and cameras – to collect and compare migrants' biometric information against information in the US-VISIT database about criminals and immigration violators... in the eastern Caribbean Sea.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services uses US-VISIT's services to establish and verify the identities of people applying for immigration benefits, including asylum or refugee status.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses US-VISIT's services at U.S. ports of entry to help facilitate legitimate travel, protect travelers against identity theft, prevent fraudulent document use, and keep our visitors and citizens safe from harm.

CBP officers are responsible for screening all international travelers to the United States. As part of the screening process, CBP officers collect digital fingerprints and a digital photograph from international travelers. Using US-VISIT's services, officers quickly and accurately verify whether the person applying for entry is the same person to whom the visa was issued. And for all travelers, with or without a visa, officers use US-VISIT's services to verify that travelers are who they say they are and that they do not pose a threat to the United States.

Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community use biometric information about known or suspected terrorists on watch lists. US-VISIT is working across the federal government to promote intelligence efforts in identifying high-risk persons.

US-VISIT biometric services also facilitate identification of terrorists by matching against latent fingerprints collected from terrorist safe houses and ongoing criminal investigations conducted around the world. The move to a 10-fingerprint collection standard expands this capability by providing additional fingerprints against which to match latent fingerprints.

Department of Justice and State and Local Law Enforcement use US-VISIT's services to ensure that they have accurate immigration information about individuals they arrest.

US-VISIT is furthering integration, accessibility and interoperability with other law enforcement and intelligence systems. The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are establishing interoperability between the US-VISIT program's Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT) and the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) fingerprint databases. ...

US-VISIT's Biometric Support Center (BSC) helps many federal, state and local agencies with their investigations. Every week, the highly-trained forensic analysts who verify biometrics 24 hours a day, seven days a week, help solve crimes, identify John or Jane Does and support terrorist investigations.

Department of State uses US-VISIT's services to establish and verify the identities of visa applicants at embassies and consulates around the world through its BioVisa program. Consular officers use this information in determining visa eligibility.

There are there unique aspects to US-VISIT that do not fit into CBP or ICE, yet would be stuffed into CBP under the proposed budget: (1) IDENT (described above); (2) the Data Integrity Group (DIG); and the (3) Biometric Support Center. The Data Integrity Group not only identifies potential overstays, but also evaluates countries for membership in the Visa Waiver Program – the latter not being an ICE function. Yet ICE by Obama's mandate does not care about overstays right now, so why absorb this function? Perhaps to kill it? The Biometric Support Center (BSC), in Virginia and California, is made up of a number of highly trained (typically former FBI) fingerprint examiners. As described above, these examiners resolve fingerprint issues for non-law enforcement agencies such as USCIS and State, as well as state and local law enforcement. What happens to these relationships with the BSC absorbed by CBP? What happens to US-VISIT if Congress does not step in and say enough of the derailing of border security?

While Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano consistently calls for a "coordinated and intelligence-driven response" to securing the border, I cannot find one instance where she has applauded or incorporated the successful research and deployment of the biometric solutions that makes the US-VISIT Program Office into just such a "coordinated and intelligence-driven response". While that makes little sense, it is not surprising now that we know that the administration was never a fan. US-VISIT – a stand-alone operation within DHS since its inception – is clearly a key forensic backbone in securing the country from those who pose a risk. In other words, US-VISIT stands in the way of amnesty, and thus is on the chopping block.

Whether the administration can get away at its latest installment of pulling security out of immigration enforcement depends on the appropriators in Congress, who control these types of reorganizations through their control of purse strings. While CBP and ICE are salivating at US-VISIT's funds coming their way at a time of tight budgets, none of it can happen if the appropriators say no.