DHS lays out vision for border system

'If I could push a button right now and have a single prime integrator, I would,' U.S. Visit program manager Jim Williams says.

Olivier Douliery

The Homeland Security Department will 'restart the engines' of its project to track visitors as they enter and leave the United States, a senior DHS official said this month.

DHS by May wants to award a contract to build the U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indication Technology system, said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security.
The U.S. Visit request for proposals, originally scheduled for release last month, is slated to hit the streets in November. Bids will be due in January.

'We want to select a single prime integrator,' program director Jim Williams said. 'If I could push a button right now and have a single prime integrator, I would.'

As part of the preparations for issuing the solicitation, DHS in September plans to release a vision of its systems requirements, said Scott Hastings, CIO for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

'This is a technology vision,' he said. It will be based on the department's anticipated funding for fiscal 2004 and beyond. 'If it's not funded, it's a hallucination,' Hastings said.

The department will have to make 'a tremendous investment in wires and boxes,' Hastings said, adding that DHS likely will make 'a clean sweep' of desktop systems now in use at border facilities.

During a three-hour vendor briefing, DHS officials discussed the Border and Transportation Security Directorate's plans for the system and the status of the program.

Hutchinson said problems with funding and other setbacks were the reasons for delays in U.S. Visit, which began life as a project at the former Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The delays might require the department to get an extension on a congressionally mandated deadline for installing the system at land ports.

The U.S. Visit team is on track to deploy the system at all air and sea entry points by the end of this year, Williams said. But some changes might make the rollout to land ports iffy, he said.

When initially fielded, for instance, the system will be able to use biometric identification. In DHS' original plans, the first versions of the system'for the air and sea entries'were not expected to use biometric IDs. That feature was to come online by Oct. 1, 2004. But Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge moved the requirement up by nine months.

To field U.S. Visit, DHS must upgrade systems at the ports. The department's plans for revamping systems at border facilities will be separate from the IT work of U.S. Visit. Williams said he expects the department will use schedule contracts for much of this face-lift work.

Although Williams said his team can meet the biometrics deadline, it might need to request that Congress postpone deployment of the system to land ports.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service Data Management Improvement Act of 2000 requires the government to field U.S. Visit at the 50 largest land entry points by the end of next year and at all land entry points by the end of 2005.

The department is trying now to figure out a new approach that would make it possible to field the system at the 50 largest land entries on time, Williams said.

'We will determine in the next few months' whether the U.S. Visit program can meet the current deployment schedule, he said. 'We have had great support from the congressional staff.'

A key factor will be the vendor, Williams said. Perhaps the U.S. Visit contractor will be able to devise a plan that meshes with the deadlines, he said.

The system essentially will cover four processes:
  • Visa recipients' information will be entered at embassies and consulates.

  • Visitors' identities will next be verified at entry points.

  • The department will then monitor visa status while visitors are in the country.

  • Finally, U.S. Visit will record each exit.

'Our goal is not to build a wall around the United States,' Hutchinson said. He described the system as a 'virtual border.'

U.S. Visit will improve national security, foster legitimate trade and travel, and protect privacy, Hutchinson said.

The system's biometric tools will initially use fingerprints and digital photographs, he said. Later, DHS anticipates the use of iris scans and facial recognition, he said.

U.S. Visit eventually will link several federal, state and local agencies, as well as foreign governments, Williams said. He noted that Ridge has said the success of the department 'will be measured by the success of U.S. Visit.'

DHS officials have been working with another contractor, BearingPoint Inc. of McLean, Va., to craft a statement of work for the U.S. Visit solicitation.

A chief technology hurdle will be integrating legacy applications into U.S. Visit, Hastings said.

Plus, 'we will be investing in additional bandwidth' for a backbone network to support U.S. Visit, he said. The prime contractor, however, will not carry out the telecommunications portion of the project.

DHS plans to award an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract for U.S. Visit that will include performance incentives, Williams said.

'In the best of all possible worlds,' the contractor would propose a fixed price, Williams said, but 'I don't know if that can be done.'

And DHS won't take just any vendor. Williams said the winning integrator must meet five criteria:
  • Have experience in border management

  • Have overseen three major IT integration projects over the past five years

  • Displayed a successful track record as a prime contractor on projects valued at more than $500 million

  • Worked on projects requiring global access to real-time applications

  • Be able to support a nationwide project.

Vendors at the presentation said the project is a massive challenge.

But 'they are going to do everything they can to meet that [2004 rollout] deadline,' said Ronald M. Scully, vice president of the systems development division for PEC Solutions Inc. of Fairfax, Va.

Peter J. Rath, information assurance manager for Orkand Corp. of Falls Church, Va., said, 'Information security is going to be a nightmare.'

Coordinating the existing stovepiped systems will spark the biggest security problems, he said. 'The enterprise architecture is going to be key,' Rath said.

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