US-VISIT Is Now the Office of Biometric Identity Management (and That's a Good Thing)

By Janice Kephart on April 15, 2013
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.

US-VISIT website

US-VISIT has been snatched from likely burial within the vast bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security and given something akin to a promotion and solid footing. Not by the Obama administration, that made the proposal to bury US-VISIT in its 2013 budget request in early 2012 by placing the core of the program in the political morass and technologically challenged Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), with no attending justification. Believe it or not, it was congressional appropriators who fought back for over a year and finally won the battle to save arguably one of the most successful and useful border, public safety, and national security programs we have in place today.

Last year, I wrote about the Obama administration's attempt to undo US-VISIT. Ever since then, congressional appropriators have waged scrimmages with the administration and among themselves as to the fate of the program. For those skeptical that it even matters where a program is placed on an organizational chart, it actually does. Placement helps determine how well a program thrives, almost as much as appropriations and policy do. In this particular case, after all was said, done, edited, and negotiated, Congress took the administration proposal and turned it into a win for the program and, ultimately, the American people.

Here's a summary of what congressional appropriators achieved:

  • US-VISIT has retained its independence and its bureaucratic locale at DHS headquarters, the National Programs and Protection Directorate, rather than being disposed of in CBP, a component of DHS. For the most part, the agency has retained its budget as well, which is a win for a program appropriated $232 million. The only lost budget item, outside of eliminated responsibilities, is supporting international partners in starting up US-VISIT programs, an understandable cut in days of budget cuts.

  • US-VISIT has received a promotion in its new name, garnering an official congressional clap on the shoulder for a job well done for expanding its partnerships in government significantly beyond its initial mandate. Originally, in the wake of 9/11, the mission of US-VISIT was to eliminate passport and visa fraud at our borders by using biometrics to assure that folks presenting travel documents were who they claimed to be, as made clear by the 9/11 Commission Final Report recommendations. The program's new name, The Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM), reflects that it has grown significantly beyond its original "travel" oriented name. More specifically, the 30,000 queries US-VISIT has been receiving daily will still include:

    • CBP uses US-VISIT's services at U.S. ports of entry to make sure the person seeking entry is the person to whom a visa was issued, protect travelers against identity theft, prevent fraudulent document use, and make sure wanted criminals are kept out.

    • 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.

    • The U.S. Coast Guard uses US‑VISIT biometrics‑based mobile services at sea by matching biometrics with criminals and immigration violators on the spot and prosecuting illegal migrants and migrant smugglers.

    • The Department of Defense and the intelligence community use biometric information about known or suspected terrorists on watch lists.

    • The 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, and interoperability exists between US-VISIT'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 by providing forensic biometric support 24/7 to solve crime and terror cases.

    • The 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.

    • The Office of Biometric Identity Management has been divested of two issues which were an albatross to its activities, and shifted those two issues — exit and overstay analysis, to the agency components who should logically be held accountable for those functions.


US VISIT is now divested of the political issue of the integrity of visa overstay data and the attending question of enforcement, which had nothing to do with the US-VISIT program. Instead, U.S . Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) now has not only the responsibility for enforcing the law against overstays, but also is responsible for crunching the data and determining who has overstayed vs. who has left but for whom there is no record of an exit. (No record of an exit often occurs if a foreign national enters via an airport where a record is taken, but leaves through a land border that provides no record at all.) This means that ICE now must deal with assuring overstay data integrity and enforcing the law against overstays. ICE getting this piece of US-VISIT makes sense, and it is a welcome change. Now Congress can more closely hold ICE accountable for actions taken based on the data.

Previously, US-VISIT would supply ICE with information to identify those who may have overstayed their length of stay. US-VISIT was matching entry and exit records (obtained from airlines) and providing that information to ICE. But without a one-stop-shop supply of exit data, the process has been, and remains, more convoluted than it should be. US-VISIT has been blamed for slow work, inaccurate data, and tremendous backlogs — all of which were somewhat outside of their control.

However, at least US-VISIT increased the capability to identify and apprehend overstays, information absolutely essential in maintaining the Visa Waiver Program as well as the most important tool in garnering overstay data and determining enforcement actions. Before US-VISIT, those who overstayed would only be found out if they had an encounter with law enforcement; there was no exit mechanism built into the immigration system to automatically generate overstay information.

Exit. For 17 years Congress has tried to force the establishment of an exit-tracking program, first on INS and now on DHS, to no avail. US-VISIT was involved with the issue because of a statutory call for a biometric exit program. Being the only true biometric and immigration shop, US-VISIT was saddled with conducting exit pilots and rendering massive reports that President Obama's DHS never allowed to see the light of day. Meanwhile, CBP, which would be ultimately responsible for full implementation of exit as they are now at entry, was included in pilots and contributed input, but never had final say, control, or accountability for getting the job done. The appropriators (smartly) took the issue off the table and in one set-aside paragraph, made clear that CBP is fully in control and accountable for getting the job done.

The appropriators also finally broke down the various legal requirements pertaining to exit into a viable, practical, phased approach that was desperately needed, adding clarity to convoluted exit-tracking requirements listed in a handful of different laws. CBP has clear marching orders: the agency must produce an enhanced biographic exit-tracking plan first, and quickly, with a later phase-in of a biometric exit plan.

One more potential benefit of the new shift of overstay analysis to ICE and exit implementation to CBP: this change may cause the necessary friction to actually make exit happen. ICE now relies on many forms of exit data, but getting the same data in the same manner with the same standardized sets of information consistently from CBP would make their job more accurate and efficient. Since Congress has not been able to make exit happen, maybe a little sister agency pressure will!

All in all, a small, but significant win, for border security leveled by congressional appropriators in the reorganization of US-VISIT. We'll take it.