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

Rey Koslowski is associate professor of political science and public policy at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy and director of the Center for Policy Research Program on Border Control and Homeland Security at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He is the author of Migrants and Citizens: Demographic Change in the European States System (Cornell University Press, 2000); and editor of International Migration and the Globalization of Domestic Politics (Routledge, 2005).

The use of information technology for border security has been central to the many immigration reform proposals introduced in the U.S. Congress and the debate that has ensued.1 The Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (H.R.4437), passed by the House in December of 2005, and the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (S. 2611), passed by the Senate in May 2006, both have provisions requiring implementation of new technologies to support border control efforts at and between ports of entry, particularly along the U.S.-Mexican border. The newly established Secure Border Initiative (SBI) will deploy a combination of surveillance technologies, data analysis systems and dispatching systems to help stop illegal migration between ports of entry—systems that the Senate bill describes as a “virtual fence.” US-VISIT, an automated biometric entry-exit system, is becoming the main tool for screening travelers at the point of entry. US-VISIT was mandated by immigration and border security legislation passed before and after September 11, 2001, and Congress is now calling for an acceleration of full implementation and enhancement of its security features.

Full system deployment of both programs may have a significant effect on reducing illegal immigration and making it more difficult for terrorists to enter the U.S. Yet these systems currently cover only a fraction of the border and are required of a small percentage of those who pass through ports of entry. In many cases, they can be evaded with stolen or fraudulent travel documents. Given that those who want to elude these systems will exploit loopholes and gaps, the systems’ effectiveness would depend upon complete implementation of all systems along all borders and ports as well as requiring entry and exit data from all travelers. However, implementation beyond what has already been accomplished is not only economically very costly but often politically difficult as well.

The "Virtual Fence"

The use of surveillance technologies by the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) goes back to the 1970s and 1980s when low-light video cameras and portable electronic intrusion-detection ground sensors were deployed at the border. In 1997, the INS developed the “Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System” (ISIS) which deployed motion, infrared, seismic and magnetic sensors; some 13,000 ground sensors were deployed by 2000. The seismic and infrared sensors can detect motion and heat within a 50-foot radius and the metal sensors have a 250-foot range. When combined with remotely controlled video cameras that have a five mile radius, border patrol agents can detect clandestine entries, train cameras on illegal migrants and smugglers, determine their numbers and whether they are carrying weapons and then dispatch the appropriate patrols.2 Nevertheless, in October 2005, the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System had been deployed along only 4% of the border, with 10,500 sensors operative.3 Many of the sensors have proved difficult to maintain in a variety of weather conditions and they do not have the ability to differentiate animals from humans. When patrols are on duty, false alerts triggered by animals divert manpower, and when the Border Patrol does not include a night shift, sensors can end up counting animal border-crossers along with illegal migrants, as was the case in certain sectors along the U.S.-Canadian border before September 11, 2001.

In August 2004, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) established the America’s Shield Initiative, which was to maintain and modernize ISIS and “integrate new, state of the market surveillance technologies.”4 Internal negative evaluations of the initiative by DHS information technology staff and external Congressional criticism eventually led the new Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, to announce an overhaul of the short-lived America’s Shield Initiative a year later arguing that DHS should not deploy “gadgets” along the border to detect illegal entrants but rather develop new technologies and strategies.5 At the same time, bills in Congress called for “a comprehensive plan for the systematic surveillance of the international land and maritime borders of the United States”6 and an Integrated and Automated Surveillance Program “to procure additional unmanned aerial vehicles, cameras, poles, sensors, satellites, radar coverage, and other technologies necessary to achieve operational control of the international borders of the United States and to establish a security perimeter known as a ‘virtual fence’ along such international borders to provide a barrier to illegal immigration.”7

The DHS replaced America’s Shield with the “Secure Border Initiative” (SBI), a comprehensive multi-year plan which, among other things, involves: “a comprehensive and systemic upgrading of the technology used in controlling the border, including increased manned aerial assets, expanded use of UAVs, and next-generation detection technology.”8 In support of the initiative, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) launched a solicitation for the Secure Border Initiative Network (or “SBInet”) contract, estimated at $2.5 billion. Normally, government agencies that outsource information system development will issue a set of requirements for the information systems they want and firms bid with proposals to develop and install systems that meet these requirements. In contrast, CBP held a SBInet “industry day” on January 25, 2006 for over 400 private sector participants where DHS Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson took outsourcing a step further. “This is an unusual invitation. I want to make sure you have it clearly, that we’re asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business. We’re asking you. We’re inviting you to tell us how to run our organization.”9 After interested firms coalesced into teams, five teams headed by Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Ericsson and Northrop Grumman were invited to submit proposals from which the CBP will select a winner by the end of September 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.

US-VISIT is also very limited in its coverage. Enrollment is required for those traveling on a regular visa and for nationals of the 27 countries in the Visa Waiver Program. The DHS has announced that it plans to require US-VISIT enrollment of legal permanent residents but it is not required of U.S. citizens or visa-exempt Canadians and Mexicans with border crossing cards. Therefore, US-VISIT is currently required of less than 10% of the approximately 440 million people who enter legally into the U.S. each year and that will go up to 28% when legal permanent residents begin to be enrolled as well.

Given these exemptions, it becomes very important to make sure that the Americans, Canadians and Mexicans who are exempt from US-VISIT are in fact who they say they are. Yet at land borders U.S. citizens may simply make an oral declaration of citizenship to enter. The inspector, using his or her judgment, may allow the person to enter if satisfied with the totality of information available or ask to see a passport or other proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate. In 2004, I entered the U.S. from Canada as an automobile passenger. The driver told the inspector that we were U.S. citizens and I never spoke. The inspector did not ask the driver or me for proof of citizenship. Similarly a daring English-speaking illegal migrant (or foreign terrorist) could declare U.S. citizenship to avoid biometric enrollment in US-VISIT and hope not to be asked for proof of citizenship. In 2004, 12,404 individuals making false claims to U.S. citizenship were intercepted by inspectors when their claims were challenged.  There are no available statistics for those, like the driver and myself, who entered with a declaration of U.S. citizenship that went unchallenged.

Recognizing this security loophole, the 9/11 Commission recommended ending the so-called “Western Hemisphere exemption” that allows U.S., Canadian and Mexican citizens to cross U.S. land borders without passports.  Families of the 9/11 victims pressured Congress to enact these recommendations and the resulting Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 requires that everyone, including U.S. citizens, have a valid passport or other designated documentary proof of citizenship in order to enter the U.S. beginning January 1, 2008. Members of Congress, particularly from border states, began to argue against the passport requirement, contending that it would impose too great a burden on Americans who have been able to travel to Canada and Mexico without the cost of getting a passport; that the 74% of Americans who do not have a passport would choose not to travel to Canada and Mexico and millions of dollars of cross-border economic activity would be threatened. The Senate immigration reform bill delays implementation of this requirement until June 1, 2009. Senators Patrick Leahy and Ted Stevens also added similar provisions to spending bills for the Departments of Homeland Security and State, helping to insure the delay regardless of the outcome of immigration reform legislation.

Another problem is posed by the 811,000 U.S. passports that have been reported to INTERPOL as lost or stolen.17 An English-speaking foreigner could acquire one of these U.S. passports and have his picture inserted, then show the passport’s outside cover while declaring U.S. citizenship at the border. If demanded by the inspector to verify identity and citizenship, the passport may, or may not, be detected as fraudulent. Although there were 12,599 fraudulent U.S. passports intercepted at ports of entry in 2004, the DHS Inspector General concluded that those attempting to enter the United States with stolen passports are usually admitted, that reports of stolen passports on lookout systems made little difference, and that several blocks of stolen passports have been linked to Al Qaeda.18 The House and Senate immigration reform bills include increased penalties for passport fraud and trafficking in passports.

Limitations and Alternatives

The combination of a complete, secure entry-exit system and a surveillance/patrol dispatch system could reduce flows of illegal migration and hinder the entry of terrorists. Despite their multi-billion dollar price tags, it is unlikely that US-VISIT and SBI will meet such expectations due to inherent limitations and constraints on full deployment.

As it currently exists, surveillance technology between ports of entry is difficult to maintain and easily circumvented. SBI is a risky proposition and, unless an agreement can be reached with Canada regarding visa requirements for Mexicans, it may have to be extended to include the U.S.-Canada border, which is almost four times longer than the border with Mexico in the South. At the same time, virtual fencing is irrelevant to almost half of illegal migrants who overstayed their visas. The entry-exit system designed to address this problem is only required of a small percentage of those who enter and implementing a secure exit data collection process is very difficult. Without a complete secure entry-exit system, a future virtual fence may be circumvented by travel document fraud and visa abuse.

Moreover, these systems, and their multi-billion dollar price tags, have been justified by their use in counter-terrorism but, without complete implementation, their utility in catching terrorists is similarly limited. DHS has yet to announce that US-VISIT has stopped a single suspected terrorist from entering the country at the border, although visa applications have been denied by the State Department due to security watch list checks supported by biometrics. Even when US-VISIT is fully developed and deployed, it is unlikely to stop many terrorists. It is doubtful that “established terrorists” known to intelligence agencies will willingly provide the biographical and biometric data that may lead to their apprehension, while “potential terrorists” who have no criminal record and minimal contacts with terrorist organizations will not generate a hit on the watch lists that are checked by US-VISIT. As the mistakes and risky behavior of some of the 9/11 hijackers indicate, terrorists, much like other criminals, are not always that smart, and US-VISIT may succeed in catching a few of the less competent. Ultimately, US-VISIT may deter some terrorists and divert the more determined to potentially more risky crossings between ports of entry. But it is unlikely to catch many terrorists itself.

“Virtual borders” and “virtual fences” may look good in powerpoint presentations but their practical implementation may require politically unpopular measures for which decision-makers are unwilling to spend their political capital. For example, the Bush Administration has been unwilling to require US-VISIT enrollment of all Canadians and Mexicans entering the U.S., let alone U.S. citizens, and Congress has been unwilling to pass legislation to mandate it. These US-VISIT exemptions open a major security gap because terrorists could pose as US-VISIT-exempt citizens who may enter the U.S. without a passport. Due to political pressures generated by border state economic interests, Congress appears ready to delay closing this security gap for another one and a half years. U.S. passports cost just under $100 and are valid for ten years, but ten dollars per year is apparently too much for Congress to ask of Americans in order to plug a big hole in U.S. border security.

Members of Congress have had no difficulty voting for bills that require 10 fingerprints from citizens of other countries but they have not been willing even to debate increasing the security of U.S. passports by including fingerprints, a measure that EU member states have agreed to take. If Congress and the President cannot even follow through on implementing existing legislation that will require U.S. citizen travelers to have passports, requiring fingerprint biometrics in U.S. passports is not politically viable.

Given these challenges to implementing both US-VISIT and SBI, the Bush Administration and Congress might consider the opportunity costs in relation to spending on other forms of immigration law enforcement. Given that most illegal migrants come to the U.S. in order to work (or join family members already working illegally in the U.S.), investing some of the billions of dollars currently earmarked for US-VISIT and SBI into developing an effective employment eligibility verification system and hiring a sufficient number of labor regulation inspectors might enable effective internal enforcement of immigration laws, dry up demand for illegal migrant workers, and reduce the number of visa overstayers much more effectively and economically than attempting to collect exit data through US-VISIT and stop border crossers with a virtual fence.


1 I am very grateful to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for supporting my research and to the German Marshall Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation for my time as a fellow of the Bellagio Migration Dialogue, which inspired the writing of this essay.

2 Shruti Daté, “Immigration Service Patrols with Sensors and Video,” Government Computing News, Feb. 7, 2000.

3 Government Accountability Office (GAO), Report to Congressional Committees: Key Unresolved Issues Justify Reevaluation of Border Surveillance Technology Program, GAO-06-295, February 2006.

4 David Aguilar, Statement before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, April 28, 2005.

5 Wilson P. Dizard III and Alice Lipowicz, “DHS reshapes border technology plan,” Government Computing News, August 1, 2005.

6 Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, H.R.4437, Section 102.

7 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, S. 2611, section 754.

8 Secure Border Initiative Fact Sheet, November 2, 2005.

9 Transcript of SBInet Industry Day, Thursday, January 26, 2006. Accessed on July 1, 2006.

10 “Modes of Entry for the Unauthorized Migrant Population,” Pew Hispanic Center, Fact Sheet, May 22, 2006.

11 This section draws on Rey Koslowski, “Real Challenges for Virtual Borders: The Implementation of US-VISIT,” Migration Policy Insights, Migration Policy Institute, June 2005. Please refer to this report for references to data sources, other references and a more detailed and extensive analysis.

12 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, section 110.a.1, “Automated Entry-Exit Control System,” U.S. Congressional Record—House (September 28, 1996): H11787.

13 “DHS Completes Foundation of Biometric Entry System,” Department of Homeland Security, press release, December 2005.

14 “Mocny Appointed Acting Director of the US-VISIT Program,” US-VISIT Update, Department of Homeland Security, June 26, 2006.

15 For a full discussion of this point, see Koslowski, “Real Challenges for Virtual Borders,” op. cit. pp. 36-43.

16 Randolf C. Hite, testimony for oversight hearing, “US-VISIT—A Down Payment on Homeland Security,” House Committee on the Judiciary, March 18, 2004.

17 INTERPOL Presentation, Border Security 2006, Warsaw Poland, May 9-10, 2006.

18 “A Review of the Use of Stolen Passports from Visa Waiver Countries to Enter the United States,” Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General, OIG-05-07, December 2004.