Proposed new immigration entry/exit enforcement system: is this too intrusive?

Hamsters ate the OP, so here it is again:

Redacted from an internal memo circulated within the immigration law firm where I work (although all information contained here is publicly available):

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced the creation of a new entry and exit system called the Visitor and Immigrant Status Indication Technology system, or U.S. Visit. The new system is designed to prevent terrorists from entering the U.S. as well as verifying that foreign nationals comply with the expiration of their authorized period of stay. [now who is going to have a reasonable problem with these goals?]

U.S. Visit would involve installing computer equipment at U.S. ports of entry to recognize fingerprints, facial features and other characteristics of foreign nationals as they enter and exit the country. The fingerprinting machinery would verify the identity of foreign nationals through fingerprints provided on their visa application. Visitors who did not have fingerprints on record would be fingerprinted upon arrival, and this information would then be used to verify their departure.

A link to Sec. Ridge’s speech:

The potential problems with a system like this, especially given the U.S. immigration bureaucracy’s track record with the proper selection and implementation of IT systems overall, make me very, very nervous. Does anyone here know how reliably such equipment might work? How should non-matches be addressed? Is it too intrusive, overall, to require fingerprints (or other unspecified biometrics; I have no idea as yet what this might entail) in order for people to enter the U.S.? Or is it just that the devil will be in the details?

Several disjoined points:

The preventing terrorists from enetering I think is wishful thinking. Terrorists also have passports and enter. It might make it a bit more difficult for someone who is wanted but come on, thousands of people enter withouth showing anything, how is this going to stop them?

The making people comply with their allowed stay, I can’t see how this will help at all. Once in, they’re in.

As far as how reliable it is I think it is still not anywher near perfect but that does not mean it is useless.

Given the three points above I think it is probably not cost effective or resource effective and that is, or should be, the main consideration.

I do not think machines or systems are inherently good or bad. What I fear is the people behind them and this is not going to make the INS any better. They have been abusive and incompetent in the past and I don’t see how this would change that.

Sorry, i didn’t answer the main question “is this too intrusive?” I don’t see it as too intrusive. I mean the object is to correctly ID people and if this helps I do not think it is too intrusive for the purpose. But, as I said, if it is not efficient or cost effective then it is a waste of money and resources better dedicated to other things.

More detail, from the NY Times:

I guess the concept per se doesn’t bother me nearly as much as my lack of confidence in DHS’ ability not to screw up the implementation, and to handle appropriately those situations where there are data discrepancies.

(And **sailor, ** to me the primary value of recording people’s exits is to cut down on the number of people immigration authorities should be looking out for. If you’re going to enforce departure deadlines, it’s probably wise to start with the subset of people who have actualy overstayed those deadlines, and until very recently, there was pretty much no accurate way to determine who had overstayed a visa and was therefore still in the country, unless they came to INS attention in some other manner - like by being convicted of a crime. This sometimes had negative consequences for visitors. A personal friend of mine was ordered deported in absentia a few years back, although he had already left for South Africa a couple of years before. Basically, nobody had ever recorded that he’d handed in his I-94 card upon departure; it probably sat in a warehouse somewhere awaiting data entry. Frankly, if I hadn’t been working at Immigration Court at the time and had happened to glance down at his deportation paperwork as his hearing was being scheduled, he probably never would have known anything went wrong.)

I see what you mean about recording exits but I don’t think this system will affect that much. As you say, the INS is a bungled bureaucracy and that is what needs to be fixed. As a victim of theirs I know it well.

Okay, sailor. Exactly how were you a victim of what’s now known as the BCIS? Last I checked, the United States has both a congess and a judiciary, both entities which will help you in a legitmate dispute with any governmental agency.

Yes, but as a professional in the immigration field for over 10 years, I can tell you with great certainty and enthusiasm that the issue is generally whether anyone can address your concern with enough speed that the issue isn’t made moot by the passage of time and/or deportation or other coerced departure from the U.S.

Still doesn’t answer the question, Eva.

Well, I don’t know what specific problem sailor has had, so I can’t address your question specifically. If you start me on the subject of providing anecdotal examples of how elected representatives and the U.S. Government’s administrative infrastructure hhave failed to address specific instances of mistreatment of individuals by INS/BCIS, though, we could be here all night.

Speaking of all night, sailor is several time zones ahead, so he probably won’t respond until at least tomorrow.

It has use as a general immigration enforcement tool, in that presently there is no official tracking of exits. (The last time I saw an I-94 card, it said something to the effect of “If your card is not retrieved when you leave the U.S., please mail it to us.”)

Are all or nearly all foreign nationals issued optical reader visas that the BCIS officer swipes to record entries? If not they should. Swiping the visa at an exit checkpoint would let the authority know for sure who is no longer physically present in the U.S. (at least as far as can be tracked by the system), thereby reducing the caseload, as Eva noted, and allowing for a reallocation of resources to identify and find offenders.

As for intrusions into privacy, I don’t know that the fingerprinting and photographing of all visitors is any more intrusive than the visitor visa process itself. As long as it’s applied evenly to all nationalities and personal types, I don’t see the problem in saying “Yes, today’s fingerprint/face/name combination matches the combination that requested the visitor status five years ago.”

Somewhat on topic, I’m much more troubled by the U.S. government’s recent acquisition of demographic data from several countries, some of which may nor may not have been obtained legally. In the case of Mexico, the data includes personal identification information, taxpayer ID numbers, blood type, etc., compiled and correlated, regardless of whether the individuals have had or sought any dealing with the U.S.

**El Mariachi Loco, ** as of right now, no, visas are not bar-coded or swipeable; as I understand the new proposition, it would accomplish much the same thing by recording fingerprints upon exit and correlating exit with entry data.

Plus, keep in mid that some LARGE categories of temporary visitors are visa-exempt, namely Canadians and (for business/pleasure short-term stay purposes) nationals of the countries who belong to the Visa Waiver Program (mostly Western European ones, plus Australia, Japan, and a couple of others, although Argentina was removed recently in the wake of their economic crisis, so Argentineans now need visas again). But everyone gets an I-94, at least in theory, so if you’re going to pick a document to bar-code, that would be the better way to go.

As for your comment on demographic data; I hadn’t seen anything about that, which somewhat surprises me. If the situation is as you describe, it’s rather troubling, to say the least. Do you have a cite?

Eva & El Mariachi Loco: Don’t forget the question, “Was that data obtained legally by the laws of the country concerned?”

  • I have a hard time imagining travellers enjoying being fingerprinted at the arrival gate. Bit of a tough sell, isn’t it ?

The scheme sounds a little like an attempt to solve a procedural and organizational problem by updating the technology - not always an optimal idea.

As Eva Luna and others pointed out, the INS/BCIS hasn’t shown the greatest ability to process the amount of data it already gets. One would think that that’s the problem that need addressing before introducing a system that would increase the amount of data for processing.

The biometric system had better be really damn reliable. It won’t take too many people being denied permission to leave the US because the system misread their fingerprints to cause a stir.

And, of course, all the biometrics in the world do not solve the real problems involved in actually applying the visa regulations. Discovering when someone overstays a visa is perfectly possible with todays’ information. Finding the culprit will be every bit as problematic with the new system. An old-fashioned photo is probably better for that purpose, anyway.

It sounds like a really cool solution in search of a problem…

Eva Luna, while it is correct that Western Europeans do not need tourist visa, their entry and exit are being tracked anyway, and far more. US agencies have demanded (and been granted) access to European airlines’ passenger data pertaining to travel to the US. As a matter of database organization, their access goes far beyond that, since the current program used does not allow limiting access to certain flights only. As such, US Customs, as an example, can screen any and all passenger data from, within, and to Europe. European privacy advocates are not very happy with this state of affairs and are working for it to be changed, but it’s what’s currently possible. As such, even when taking a flight from Rome to Dublin, US authorities will be aware of your travels if you are of interest to them, regardless of you ever having been to the US, or having intention to go there any time soon.

Here is a link that outlines the situation. Basically, the U.S. government hired a private company to obtain data on foreign individuals–essentially all information available on all individuals in the given jurisdiction.

Monty, ChoicePoint says that it is cooperating with foreign investigators who claim that the data was obtained illegally. But common sense would indicate that there’s at least one foreign corrupt practice involved when a Nicaraguan company says, “Here’s our national voter registry, and we’ve also included passport numbers, income tax data, blood type and employment history.”

In the case of Mexico, the disclosure of voter information, tax returns and other governmental information is a criminal offense. There’s quite a bit of outrage here, directed at both the U.S. government for seeking the data and whomever is responsible in Mexico for providing it.

Eva, I am not sure what you mean by “bar coded or swipeable” but visas have been “swipeable” (computer-readable) for a long time and it is not an American standard but an international standard. I have a bunch of visas to different countries and they all have the same two last lines which are standard internationally and can be read by immigration authorities around the world. It is also the same coding on the passport itself. In fact, years ago, when some countries used this and others did not you might see you could be from country A (which did not use the format) and arrive in country B (which did not use the format in their visa) and when you arrived in B they would scan you visa from country C which had nothing to do with anything except they used the coding which was machine readable. this has happened to me many times. I believe today pretty much all countries use the machine readable format. In fact, when a passport or visa expires, I have seen them cut the machine reaable part and leave the rest which makes it non swipeable. I have a few like that

I meant bar-coded in the sense that INS/BCIS would swipe the visa in order to record departure. AFAIK they don’t do that; until recently with the advent of Special Registration, which only applies to a few nationalities, INS/BCIS didn’t reliably record departure information at all, which was how my friend ended up being deported in absentia. They’re doing it more consistently now, but not by swiping bar-coded visas. AFAIK they do it through manual data entry of the I-94 cards that are theoretically handed in when people leave. Bar codes, or anything more automated, sounds like a great idea to me, but only if the technical glitches can be dealt with sensibly.

For Canadians, who generally don’t get a separate I-94 card every time they cross if they are here for a protracted period (as on a student or work-related admission), I doubt they even record entries and departures at all. In fact, sometimes we need a client to cross the border and get a new I-94 card, as when we change or extend their status, and they can barely convince INS/BCIS to issue them a new one, even if they’re re-entering in a different status or with a different expiration date than they had when they departed the last time. It’s a pain in the neck later when we need to document their status down the line, as when we’re filing a green card application or an extension of their temporary status and need to prove that they have always maintained status. Scores of Canadian clients have told me that they are routinely waved across at land border checkpoints without even a cursory glance at their documents. No matter how friendly we are with Canada, we need to keep in mind that a) Canadian citizens aren’t the only folks who cross the U.S./Canada border, and b) lots of Canadians weren’t born Canadians. It’s the inconsistency and the unpredictability of enforcement that drives us bonkers in trying to advise clients.

I think the bar codes on the visas are an anti-fraud measure to guard against peole modifying certain fields on the visas; I think the bar code is just an encoded version of the same data, but I can check with more knowledgeable co-workers if anyone is interested.

Eva, believe me, visas and passports have been machine-readable for some time now. They are swipped on arrivel but you are right that departure is not recorded by swipping but by recording the I-94. But, believe me, every single alien who arrives at an airport, whether he needs or has visa or not, his entry is recorded there and then by swipping the passport. At least that is my experience. Canadians entering from Canada may be a different case; I am talking about international airports.

The swipeable encoding is not bar codes, it is a special font and it is a world-wide standard. i’ll be happy to send you a scan of my passport so you can see what I mean.

Oh, believe me, there is no shortage of passports in my ofice at the moment. I have 5 Portguese ones, as well as assorted Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Canadians, and Italians on my desk at this very moment. I don’t doubt that they are swiped on arrival, but also keep in mind that land border crossings are treated much differently. Partly this is becuase airlines can be fined if they allow someone to board without proper documentation to enter the destination country.

Too late _. Anyway, the point is that the INS does swipe passports on arrival. Why they don’t do the same on departure is probably a practical thing as you do not need to go through immigration control on departure so the airline just hands in a bunch of I-94 instead.

If they recorded the i-94 number on arrival (I believe they don’t but maybe they do) they could machine read them on departure.