Panel urges border IT reform

A presidential committee has recommended changes in border processing technologies and procedures ' including several categories of systems upgrades and policy reforms ' to relieve onerous border crossing requirements for entry into the United States that have reduced foreigners' desire to come to the country for tourism, study and business.

The panel noted that existing systems and procedures have crippled tourism, the higher-education sector and other industries because foreigners face unpredictable delays and a burdensome processing system due in part to inefficient information technology.

The secretaries of Homeland Security and State appointed the Secure Borders and Open Doors Advisory Committee (SBODAC), whose members come from academia, private companies and nongovernmental organizations, in December 2006. The panel noted that overseas travel to the United States declined 17 percent from 2000 through 2006.

'We can and must do better,' according to a report by the advisory committee. '[S]tatistics, public opinion studies and anecdotal evidence show that the policies put in place to make our borders more secure are perceived as making travel to the U.S. more difficult and unpleasant for many foreign visitors than before 9/11 and in comparison to other countries.

'Many opinion leaders overseas have been more than happy to label our new security programs as the construction of a 'Fortress America,' ' the committee's report said.

Technology recommendations from the committee ranged from minor to sweeping. Several recommendations centered on improving data quality, expanding interagency coordination and streamlining the border crossing experience.

In remarks that DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff made to the committee at the report's release, he cited several existing border improvement projects but did not address the technology problems the panel described, nor ways to eliminate the indignities that law-abiding foreigners experience during the border crossing process.

Chertoff said he had not read the committee's report, but stated that DHS plans to add several hundred border crossing inspectors to speed processing.

Ed Hearst, vice president of government affairs at Dublin, Calif.-based Sybase, works closely with the committee's co-chair, Sybase Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President John Chen.

Hearst emphasized three of the report's recommendations:
  • DHS should evaluate and overhaul the systems that process traveler information within nine months;
  • DHS and State should upgrade the systems they use to generate metrics of border processing efficiency and effectiveness;
  • The border agencies should cooperate more closely and quickly implement systems to speed the transit of vetted foreigners who qualify as registered travelers.

The report itself included a broad array of recommendations, including:
  • Improving visa systems and processes, including more monitoring and the achievement of measurable results, leading to better security and fewer mistakes
  • Creating a standard single enterprise file for DHS and State on businesses that seek to sponsor travel and immigration or move goods across borders
  • Establishing a pilot program for International Registered Travelers as soon as possible and expanding the program to the top 20 international airports
  • Accelerating and expanding the Model Ports Program and including the Transportation Security Administration to eliminate redundant baggage and passenger screening
  • Implementing the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and US-VISIT programs
  • Expanding videoconferencing to increase public access to consular offices
  • Upgrading the state.gov Web site to go beyond its current brochure function to act as a marketing and recruiting tool; this would involve publicizing the system, improving access, including links to university and government sites, among others; and making the site easier to use. The panel also recommended that State create a centralized service on the Web that would include links to all the information sources and organizations that foreign students use, including the EducationUSA program.
  • Reformatting consular Web sites to be standardized, helpful, easy to use and consistent in their guidance to applicants, with special regional personnel assigned to manage the sites.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.

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