US-VISIT Expanding Soon to New Immigrants and Some LPRs

By Jessica M. Vaughan on December 19, 2008

Check another one off Secretary Chertoff’s Bucket List. Soon in the new year, DHS is to begin screening several new categories of aliens, getting another border security enhancement in place before the regime change. Beginning January 17, 2009, all those arriving on immigrant visas, new refugees and asylees, some green card holders, and a few other categories will be enrolled in US-VISIT at the Port of Entry. This is a necessary move, but not a dramatic one – it means another 5 million aliens will be screened annually, but that’s only about 2% of all foreign visitor entries each year (see chart below).

The US-VISIT process collects the travelers’ fingerprints, authenticates their identity, checks for derogatory information, and records their entry. It has been a genuine enhancement to homeland security and public safety, snaring thousands of dangerous individuals and immigration fraudsters. But US-VISIT is far from complete, and the incoming administration and Congress need to keep chipping away at this massive project.

Currently, the screening applies to all foreign air and sea arrivals and a very small share of foreign land border arrivals. It was meant to be the first step toward an entry-exit recording system that tells us who is coming and going (but the going part has not been a priority for this administration). Adding in green card holders and the other categories to the mix has to be done. The biometric screening will prevent imposters from using genuine green cards that have been lost, stolen, or borrowed, and alert inspectors to dangerous or wanted individuals. This is accomplished without significant imposition on travelers, without noticeable increases in the time it takes to do inspections, and without disrupting the flow of legitimate travel and commerce.

One catch is that only a small share of green card holders will actually be screened. The new procedures only apply to those arriving by air and sea, and to those re-entering at land ports who are sent to secondary inspection (because they attracted the attention of the primary inspector). The situation is the same with non-immigrant travelers – while all air and sea arrivals are screened, most entries occur by land, and only 15% of temporary visitors who enter by land are screened.

As the following crossing volume statistics show, a very small share of the total number of incoming travelers are subject to the biometric screening and tracking of US-VISIT. Those numbers in italics are or soon will be subject to screening. The total comes to 18.6% of foreign entries. These numbers (in millions) are from 2004. They reflect entries, and it is important to remember that a very large share of entries (around 70%) are people who cross very frequently. US Citizens are not a huge problem, as they are finally going to be required to provide more secure documents under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. The real gap is not screening Border Crossing Card users (short-term visitors from Mexico), where the problems with fraud and misuse are significant, and the numbers are very large (more on this in forthcoming blog posts).

Air Sea Land Total
US Citizen 38.1 8.8 122.2 169.1
LPR 5.3 0.2 70.0 75.5
Visa Waiver 14.7 0.4 0.6 15.7
Visa Exempt (Canadians) 46.6 46.6
Regular NIV 17.0 5.3 4.1 26.4
BCC (Mexicans) 91.8 91.8
Total 75.1 14.7 335.3 425.1

In a stakeholders conference call held yesterday to announce the implementation of the new rules, US-VISIT program director Bob Mocny said that the representatives of the incoming Obama administration appeared to be “supportive” of US-VISIT and planned “no radical changes.” He also said that they seemed interested in the “cost-effectiveness” of any future program expansion. Hopefully this is not code for “we’re looking for a reason not to do any more here.”

What’s next? According to Mocny, the plan is to begin testing solutions for exit recording at the air and sea ports. In addition, according to new rules finalized this week non-agricultural H-2B guestworkers will have to check out through a land border exit program. Obviously this should be a requirement for every visitor, but it is encouraging to see it finally being piloted for one group. (There are other major problems with the new H-2B regs, but I’ll save that for a future post).

For more on the challenges facing the US-VISIT program, see this recent GAO report: