INS gets reprieve on gathering entry and exit data

INS plans to
build on existing systems to gather entry and exit data.


The Immigration and Naturalization Service missed its Oct. 1 deadline to develop a
system to track foreign visitors as they enter and leave the United States, forcing
Congress to give the agency more time.


Congress, under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of
1996, originally gave INS until the first of this month to implement an automated
entry-exit control system at all 250 U.S. air, land and sea ports of entry.


Congress has extended the deadline until March 30, 2001. Lawmakers included the
extension in the fiscal 1999 omnibus budget bill.


Even though INS has conducted a couple of small pilots, there is little to show of the
new system, INS officials said. And the service will not conduct an initial feasibility
study until January.


Until then, INS will not determine what technology to use, what it will cost or how
long it will take to create the system, INS spokeswoman Elaine Komis said.


Without such a system, INS cannot track who leaves the country, which is important in
determining whether foreign nationals overstay their visa or fail to leave at all, critics
said.


More than 2 million foreign visitors overstay their visas each year, INS officials
said.


Congress, under Section 110 of the 1996 immigration law, ordered INS to create a system
to run checks on individuals as they enter the United States and to conduct exit checks as
aliens leave the country.


Capitol Hill lawmakers are angry that the system is nowhere to be seen. “INS
barely tried to comply with law,” said Allan Kay, spokesman for Rep. Lamar Smith
(R-Texas). The United States is the only industrialized nation that does not track when
and if foreign visitors leave, Kay said.


As it now stands, INS only captures license plate data, not information on the
individuals entering at land borders, said Michael Hrinyak, deputy assistant commissioner
for inspections at INS. The service records the license plate numbers of vehicles entering
the country at the Canadian and Mexican borders. INS agents then enter the data into the
Interagency Border Inspection System to check for any lookout notices posted against
vehicles or vehicles’ owners.


If INS agents suspect something improper, they have to pull a car over and check the
occupants’ identifications.


Komis denied that INS has done nothing toward creating the system. INS started to run a
pilot at the border crossing at Eagle Pass, Texas, but complaints from local business
owners halted the test.


INS is now using computer simulation and mock port-of-entry stiles at the Federal Law
Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga., to test ways to implement the system, Komis
said.


Exit checks have not been made part of INS’ job, Komis said. Airports are starting
to conduct exit checks, but INS must rely on air carriers to collect exit data because INS
does not have exit checkpoints, Komis said.


Foreign air travelers must fill out entry forms, which they carry with their passports
while here. The airlines then collect the forms when they leave. But that method is
unreliable, Komis said.


The system will require a large database because some 300 million visitors a year enter
the United States at border crossings. The United States hosts about 500 million visitors
a year, INS officials said.


Kay argued that technology for the system is available now and criticized INS for
failing to test and develop a system in the two years since the law passed.


At a hearing in July before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims,
representatives from Electronic Data Systems Corp. and TransCore, a subsidiary of Science
Applications International Corp. of San Diego, testified that the technology is available.
But Ann Cohen, vice president of EDS, said INS’ real challenge is to change the way
it operates.


To complicate matters, the Senate twice passed a repeal of Section 110 and had included
the repeal in its funding bill for the Commerce, Justice and State departments.


Senators seeking repeal, among them Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), are concerned that
not having an automated system to enforce the provision will lead to gridlock at the
borders.


“Make no mistake, if the House doesn’t take timely action repealing Section
110, the repercussions for U.S.-Canadian travel, trade and tourism will be immediate and
disastrous,” Abraham said.


Smith argued that doing nothing provides “a welcome mat for terrorists.” The
Canadian Security Intelligence Service reported in April that most of the world’s
terrorist groups have established themselves in Canada and try to enter the United States
through the Canadian border.


INS devotes most of its manpower to the southern border, where 70 percent of the
illegal drugs enter the United States, Kay said.


But for INS it is a challenge to develop the system. “We won’t be scrapping
systems but building upon the systems we have to provide entry-exit data,” Hrinyak
said. The systems INS uses do communicate but don’t collect the data required by
Section 110, he said.


INS has automated some border crossing processes. Foreigners planning to stay three
days or less had been issued a cardboard border-crossing card. The card is being
redesigned as a sturdier version containing a holographic image, a magnetic stripe and an
embedded computer chip.


The new cards will be issued by the State Department, but INS will produce them, Komis
said.


At some border crossings, INS runs a pilot in which frequent visitors fill out
applications, undergo background checks and have their fingerprints taken. Once approved
for regular visits, they can move much more quickly across the border in a dedicated
commuter lane, said Bill Strassberger, a public affairs officer in INS’ Western
region office. 

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