Funding jolt looms for U.S. Visit

Even as the Homeland Security Department looks to put technological muscle into its border management work between ports of entry, the department's U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator System program could get a funding fillip at the behest of powerful Senate Appropriations Committee members.

'We took a run at getting $1 billion more for border security in [the most recent] defense appropriations [bill],' Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, said in a recent hearing. 'We are going to take another run. There will be a supplemental [appropriations bill] before [the main Homeland Security Department appropriations] bill.'

Gregg made his comments in favor of a funding increase for U.S. Visit amid a discussion at the hearing among himself, ranking minority member Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Jim Williams, the border project's program manager.

Gregg and Byrd pressed Williams for faster action on the coordination of DHS' two-finger IDENT database and the FBI's 10-fingerprint Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System.

DHS secretary Michael Chertoff announced last year that the department would soon begin to require travelers to provide 10 fingerprints when they seek visas and enter the country.

Several new categories of fingerprint information, which apply to various groups of criminals, sexual predators and other wrongdoers, recently have been added to the types of information the FBI shares with DHS, Williams said.

Williams said that 'an initial operating capability' of the IDENT and IAFIS coordination would begin in the fall, and it will go to full operating capability in 2007.

Meanwhile, a separate phase of the U.S. Visit program designed to test technology for recording the exit of travelers is stumbling, according to testimony at the hearing. The program's 15 pilots of exit technology have been plagued by low compliance rates, witnesses said. Most travelers at the pilot sites believe that there will be no discipline or punishment for not checking out of the country via the U.S. Visit exit kiosks, Williams said.

Williams said one of the keys to improving exit system compliance rates in the pilots was enforcement, which the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency carried out at one pilot site. 'When ICE took enforcement action, our compliance rates went up,' Williams said.

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