Immigration Reforms and Border Security Technologies
Published on: Jul 31, 2006

A comprehensive approach that puts technology into a broader border security strategy makes sense and a “virtual fence” may be more politically viable than a physical fence. But SBInet appears to hand the responsibility for developing that strategy to the private sector and, more specifically, to military contractors, who may or may not have immigration policy and operational border security expertise. CBP may have the power to choose among five border security strategies, but it is not clear how much control CBP operations managers will have over the system development process once that choice is made.  While the team of contractors selected will most likely have domain expertise offered by retired border patrol and immigration officials, there is a great risk involved in any information technology project, whether in the public or private sector, that lets external consultants and technology vendors take the lead in system design, development and implementation, not to mention formulation of the strategy that shapes the organization’s information technology needs.

In theory, a “virtual fence” along the entire 1,989-mile U.S.-Mexican border should drastically reduce illegal migration. But when one considers a few basic facts about illegal migration to the U.S., it becomes clear that even the best virtual fence, or physical fence for that matter, may only be marginally effective. It has been estimated that there are 11.5 to 12 million illegal migrants in the U.S. Approximately 55% of them entered by evading immigration inspectors and the Border Patrol, but 45% entered legally through ports of entry and did not return in accordance with the terms of their visas.10 Mexicans comprise the vast majority of the estimated 6-7 million illegal migrants who crossed by evading authorities but in fact they can circumvent a virtual fence along the Southern border by entering the U.S. illegally via Canada.  Since a visa is not required of Mexicans for travel to Canada, Mexicans can buy a roundtrip airline ticket from Mexico City to Vancouver for about $500 then take a bus to the U.S.-Canadian border and walk across it. Mexicans who work illegally picking apples and planting trees in Washington State do this every year. For a virtual fence on the Southern border to have much effect, the U.S. would have to build another fence on the much longer 5,525-mile U.S.-Canadian border or persuade the Canadian government to end visa free travel from its NAFTA partner, Mexico.

Even if a watertight virtual fence were successfully built along the entire 7,514 mile U.S. land border with Mexico and Canada, it would still do nothing about the other 45%; the estimated 4.75 to 5.5 million illegal migrants who entered the United States legally but overstayed their visas. For that there is US-VISIT.


The entry-exit tracking system at the core of US-VISIT was initially envisioned in 1996 legislation12 in order to identify visa overstayers and enforce immigration law, but it was not until after the September 11th attacks that the system began to be developed and take on a counter-terrorism role. US-VISIT was first deployed at airports on January 1, 2004 and it was in place at all 284 air, land and sea ports of entry at the end of 2005.13 US-VISIT collects biographical and biometric data from foreign nationals at U.S. consulates abroad as well as when they enter the U.S. Watch list checks are run on the data collected in order to help inspectors keep out terrorists and criminals and determine whether those who enter the U.S. leave in accordance with the terms of their visas. Even if those identified as visa overstayers cannot be easily located and deported, their names are placed on watchlists so that if they leave the country they can be barred from entering again.  By June 2006, US-VISIT had processed more than 60 million foreign visitors and more than 1,170 criminals or immigration violators had been stopped at entry to the United States.14

With the exception of pilot projects at five border crossing points, departures are not registered at land borders. Given that a secure exit process at land borders would most likely require building border control infrastructure (lanes, booths, information systems) and staffing nearly equal to that of currently existing entry processes,15 collection of exit data (particularly biometrics) at land border crossings remains perhaps the most vexing problem for full implementation of US-VISIT.  At air and seaports, biographical exit data is captured from airline and ship manifests but biometric exit registration only occurs through pilot programs at 13 airports and 2 seaports. For the most part, these biometric exit processes are voluntary and are only enforced by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers at San Juan International Airport.

US-VISIT is very much a work in progress in that it is primarily a set of existing legacy INS and U.S. Customs systems that have had interfaces built to connect them. A contract solicitation outlined a more comprehensive vision to develop US-VISIT into a “virtual border” and this contract was won by an Accenture-led team of companies in May 2004. The US-VISIT program has cost over $1.4 billion so far and its projected cost through FY 2014 is between $7.2 billion and $14 billion.16 In addition to existing requirements for the system, immigration reform bills passed by the House and Senate require that US-VISIT begin to collect 10 fingerprints instead of two fingerprints. Both bills also require that the DHS submit a schedule for implementing the US-VISIT exit component at all land border crossings and making all immigration systems interoperable.