WASHINGTON—After spending $900 million to set up a database to track foreign travelers arriving in America, the government still doesn't know how many of them stay in the country illegally because the system is incomplete and snarled by controversy.
The US-VISIT system screens up to 2 million foreigners a month as they arrive at all international airports and seaports and at most border crossings. Visitors' personal information, fingerprints and photographs are logged electronically into a computer database and their names are checked against criminal records and terrorist watch lists.
But 10 years after Congress first ordered the system, the Department of Homeland Security hasn't set up a way for the same visa-holders to check out when they leave the country. Instead, the agency continues to test it at 14 airports and two seaports.
DHS officials said they didn't know when the checkout system would be launched nationwide because of the difficulty of creating a fast and effective method that travelers could use when they left the country.
"We're not ready," said Robert Mocny, the acting director of US-VISIT. "We're going to make sure before we put any exit system in place that we get it right."
With the program still up in the air, some DHS officials question whether the agency should spend millions more on a system that may lead to much longer delays at airports and border crossings without detecting a single terrorist.
"We need to have exit control but I'm not sure US-VISIT is the solution," said Jayson Ahern, who oversees the 322 U.S. ports of entry for Customs and Border Protection. "We need to find that right balance of something that provides the high level of security we need but at the same time allows us to move legitimate travelers."
Critics said the exit program might never be completed the way Congress originally envisioned it because of the lack of consensus within the agency and opposition from the travel industry and border communities.
"No government official is going to say publicly that they've given up on it because it's embarrassing," said Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney and lieutenant colonel for the Army's military police. "But the fact is, Congress mandated them to do this and they still haven't done it."
Congress ordered immigration authorities to set up a system to track foreigners in 1996 after the first terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, but the program never received enough money to get off the ground.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress renewed its mandate and promised the newly created Department of Homeland Security enough money to set up an entry-exit system.
Since US-VISIT launched three years ago, authorities have recorded 64 million visits in their database. They credit the new screening process with helping them to detect and turn back more than 1,300 criminals.
But Congress never set a deadline for a checkout system. The agency has spent $900 million so far, mostly on setting up new fingerprinting machines for arriving foreigners.
It's testing hand-held machines or kiosk checkouts for departing travelers, but officials said they wouldn't have a plan for a nationwide exit system until at least next year.
Mocny said his agency faced major challenges because U.S. airport and border crossings had never had the staff or resources to process people as they left the country.
"I think that's why Congress didn't give us a deadline," he said. "They told us to come up with a plan and that's what we're doing."
To determine whether a visa-holder has left the country, federal authorities rely on random checks of electronic passenger records or visa forms, known as I-94's.
A separate database tracks whether foreign students show up to register for classes. Recently, the student system alerted authorities when 11 Egyptians didn't enroll in their colleges as required by their visas.
But experts said the only reliable way to know how many people overstayed their visas and remained in the country illegally would be to require visa-holders to check out.
"Right now we really just have an expensive super-duper, high-tech entry system that doesn't make much sense to have," Stock said.
The gap in information helps fuel criticism of the Bush administration's proposed foreign guest-worker program. Opponents question how authorities would keep tabs on perhaps millions of new temporary workers if they can't keep track of tourists, students and business executives.
"An exit system is a very critical piece of having an effective immigration policy," said Jessica Vaughan, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Immigration Studies, a research center that advocates tougher immigration enforcement. "No matter what anybody feels about immigration, I think most people would agree that we should have a sense of who is authorized to be in the country and who isn't."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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