U.S. Visit lands at air, sea ports
- By Wilson P. Dizard III
- Jan 09, 2004
At Dulles International Airport just outside of Washington, a DHS officer gathers fingerprints and a digital photo of a foreign visitor on the first day of the U.S. Visit program.
Bleary-eyed travelers on British Airways flight 217 from London's Heathrow airport to Dulles International Airport on Jan. 5 faced a new wrinkle in their immigration processing: fingerprint scans and digital photography on the first operational day of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indication System.
The passengers, weary but patient, submitted to the scans and photos that added about 10 seconds to a passport and visa check process that previously ranged from 30 seconds to two minutes per person.
'The passengers seem very eager. We have had nobody refuse,' said Customs and Border Patrol officer Jeffrey Tetraut, who manned one of the U.S. Visit stations at Dulles. 'It's a great tool that will help cut down on visa fraud and helps the passenger sitting next to you feel secure.'
The Homeland Security Department sent computer technicians to 115 airports and 14 seaports nationwide to oversee the launch of the system's initial capabilities this month. The tech team of roughly 150 was drawn from the department's IT staff and from contractors.
Homeland Security in mid-November started testing the system at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. DHS began deploying systems at other locations on Dec. 22. 'What we learned from the pilots is that if we had a technical person on the ground, it was very beneficial,' said Shonnie Lyon, director of increment management for the program.
The department launched the first operational stage of U.S. Visit at 5 a.m. EST on Jan. 5. By 8 a.m., the system had processed about 3,000 travelers, Lyon said.
During the pilot phase at Hartsfield, border inspectors recorded about 20 hits when running fingerprints and information from visitors against the government's collection of data about known terrorists and people with criminal histories.
Some of the hits indicated that travelers had warrants out for their arrest, and one of the matches turned up a fugitive who had failed to appear in court.
Several of the travelers whose fingerprints generated hits on the system had been using multiple identities, DHS officials said. A traveler checked at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport had entered the country about 60 times over the past five years using three aliases, Lyon said.
After screening someone, a U.S. Visit system displays a green light signaling border officials to allow a traveler to pass or a red light indicating that they should stop the traveler.
When the system identifies a hit, officials move the traveler to a secondary inspection area.
The U.S. Visit system lets DHS users verify a fingerprint match by sending the information to a biometric support center where examiners check fingerprint images in government databases against those recorded at border sites.
For the program's first phase, it is using two-finger scan technology and digital images of visa holders.
Visa holders represent about 20 percent of all persons entering the country, officials said. The United States does not require Canadians, Mexicans with border-crossing cards and citizens of 27 mainly Western European countries to obtain visas, and so they need not submit fingerprints and images for U.S. Visit processing.
A chief challenge for U.S. Visit is the behind-the-scene processing required, said Dave Fickett, program manager for Enforce and Ident, two immigration databases that are scanned for U.S. Visit processing.
The processing of a single visitor requires data sharing across six systems, he said. But DHS expects U.S. Visit will rely on data stowed in 19 databases.Tough job
That integration work will be one of the chief items on the agenda of the as-yet-to-be-named U.S. Visit contractor, which the department plans to select by May. Three vendors'Accenture LLP, Computer Sciences Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp.'are competing in a fly-off for the multibillion-dollar project.