Border Security:

US-VISIT Program Faces Strategic, Operational, and Technological Challenges at Land Ports of Entry

GAO-07-248: Published: Dec 6, 2006. Publicly Released: Dec 14, 2006.

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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) established the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program to collect, maintain, and share data on selected foreign nationals entering and exiting the United States at air, sea and land ports of entry (POEs). These data, including biometric identifiers like digital fingerprints, are to be used to screen persons against watch lists, verify visitors' identities, and record arrival and departure. GAO was asked to review implementation at land POE facilities and in doing so GAO analyzed: (1) efforts to implement US-VISIT entry capability; (2) efforts to implement US-VISIT exit capability; and (3) DHS's efforts to define how US-VISIT fits with other emerging border security initiatives. GAO reviewed DHS and US-VISIT program documents, interviewed program officials, and visited 21 land POEs with varied traffic levels on both borders.

US-VISIT entry capability has been installed at 154 of the 170 land POEs. Officials at all 21 sites GAO visited reported that US-VISIT had improved their ability to process visitors and verify identities. DHS plans to further enhance US-VISIT's capabilities by, among other things, requiring new technology and equipment for scanning all 10 fingerprints. While this may aid border security, installation could increase processing times and adversely affect operations at land POEs where space constraints, traffic congestion, and processing delays already exist. GAO's work indicated that management controls in place to identify such problems and evaluate operations were insufficient and inconsistently administered. For example, GAO identified computer processing problems at 12 sites visited; at 9 of these, the problems were not always reported. US-VISIT has developed performance measures, but measures to gauge factors that uniquely affect land POE operations were not developed; these would put US-VISIT officials in a better position to identify areas for improvement. US-VISIT officials concluded that, for various reasons, a biometric US-VISIT exit capability cannot now be implemented without incurring a major impact on land POE facilities. An interim nonbiometric exit technology being tested does not meet the statutory requirement for a biometric exit capability and cannot ensure that visitors who enter the country are those who leave. DHS has not yet reported to Congress on a required plan describing how it intends to fully implement a biometric entry/exit program, or use nonbiometric solutions. Until this plan is finalized, neither DHS nor Congress is in a good position to prioritize and allocate program resources or plan for POE facilities modifications. DHS has not yet articulated how US-VISIT is to align with other emerging land border security initiatives and mandates, and thus cannot ensure that the program will meet strategic program goals and operate cost effectively at land POEs. Knowing how US-VISIT is to work with these initiatives, such as one requiring U.S. citizens, Canadians, and others to present passports or other documents at the border in 2009, is important for understanding the broader strategic context for US-VISIT and identifying resources, tools, and potential facility modifications needed to ensure success.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help DHS achieve benefits commensurate with its investment in US-VISIT at land POEs and security goals and objectives, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the US-VISIT Program Director, in collaboration with the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection to improve existing management controls for identifying and reporting computer processing and other operational problems as they arise at land POEs and ensure that these controls are consistently administered.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US-VISIT did not have adequate management controls for identifying and reporting computer processing and other operational problems at land ports of entry (POE). CBP and US-VISIT, by putting these controls in place, would be better positioned to avoid delays that could negatively impact land POE facilities' abilities to handle vehicular and pedestrian traffic and decrease the likelihood that incidents would arise that require CBP officials to turn visitors away. Further, these controls would better enable CBP supervisors and officers to report and resolve disruptions to US-VISIT computer operations helping to ensure that a critical US-VISIT function-the ability use biometric information to confirm visitors'identities-would remain functional. We recommended that the US-VISIT Program Director, in collaboration with the Commissioner of CBP, improve existing management controls for identifying and reporting computer processing and other operational problems as they arise at land POEs and that they ensure these controls are consistently administered. In November 2007, in response to our report, CBP issued a directive that applies to all POEs (air, land, and sea) and explicitly addresses US-VISIT. The directive establishes controls that assign roles and responsibilities to CBP staff for reporting computer processing problems and monitoring operations. One section of the directive lists protocols for land POEs that address how CBP officials should identify and report computer processing and other operational problems as they arise. Another section requires that field office managers monitor application of these controls to ensure that they are consistently administered. As a result, CBP and US-VISIT demonstrated that there is a policy in place establishing management controls for identifying, reporting, and resolving computer processing and operational problems at land POEs and for monitoring the application of these controls.

    Recommendation: To help DHS achieve benefits commensurate with its investment in US-VISIT at land POEs and security goals and objectives, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the US-VISIT Program Director, in collaboration with the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection to develop performance measures for assessing the impact of US-VISIT operations specifically at land POEs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 2007, we analyzed how the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program implemented technologies used to screen persons against watch lists at land port of entry (POE) facilities. We found that US-VISIT and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had not established performance measures to help them identify problems, trends, and areas needing improvement with regard to operating the US-VISIT screening technology at land POEs. US-VISIT officials reported taking actions to develop new performance measures since our report was issued. For example, in May 2008, US-VISIT published a 10-Print Initial Deployment Performance Evaluation Report which, among other things, focused on fingerprinting capability and discussed 45 performance measures intended to quantify system performance in four different areas. This evaluation assessed system functionality but did not (1) provide discrete information about the impact these systems are having on operations at land POEs and (2) address land POES, but rather focused on data obtained from 10 commercial airports, which differ operationally from land POEs. Since then, US-VISIT has begun to use measures of the timeliness of searches at all ports, including land ports. On June 6, 2011, the US-VISIT audit liaison provided a spreadsheet with processing times for 148 land ports of entry for the month of April 2011. US-VISIT officials said that these statistics are collected on a daily basis; the standard that POEs must meet, 10 seconds per entry, is detailed in the Service Level Agreement between US-VISIT and CBP. The ten second requirement was devised by CBP and US-VISIT as the maximum allowable time to complete a search of an individual's biometric data via US-VISIT's automated systems. According to US-VISIT, if the response times become slow at any POEs and exceeds 10 seconds, the CBP port experiencing the slowdown is to contact a help desk so that the problem can be identified and a resolution can be formulated and executed. CBP officials confirmed this and said if a POE encountered an instance where the 10 second standard was exceeded, the POE is to contact the help desk to check if there are any identifiable reasons why cycle time is over 10 seconds. In response, the help desk is to provide a best estimate for the duration of the problem (minutes or hours) and that information is used to determine whether the POE has to institute mitigation procedures. Whereas short interruptions may only result in a slowdown entering data requests, a long-term outage would prompt a POE to revert to the manual process wherein persons of interest (high risk) are delayed until the biometrically-based US-VISIT system was back on line. CBP officials also said that it has issued instructions for POEs regarding mitigation procedures when the US-VISIT 10-second standard is not being met. Based on the measures created by US-VISIT and CBP and the actions taken by CBP, this recommendation has been implemented and is considered closed.

    Recommendation: As DHS finalizes the statutorily mandated report describing a comprehensive biometric entry and exit system for US-VISIT, the Secretary of Homeland Security should take steps to ensure that the report include, among other things, information on the costs, benefits, and feasibility of deploying biometric and nonbiometric exit capabilities at land POEs; a discussion of how DHS intends to move from a nonbiometric exit capability, such as the technology currently being tested, to a reliable biometric exit capability that meets statutory requirements; and a description of how DHS expects to align emerging land border security initiatives with US-VISIT and what facility or facility modifications would be needed at land POEs to ensure that technology and processes work in harmony.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 2007, we analyzed how the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program implemented technologies used to screen persons against watch lists at land port of entry (POE) facilities and worked to complement other emerging border security initiatives. We reported, among other things, that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had not yet reported to Congress on a required plan describing how it intends to fully implement a biometric entry/exit program, or use nonbiometric solutions. We recommended that, as part of this report, DHS should discuss the costs, benefits, and feasibility of deploying these capabilities at land POEs. US-VISIT officials said that US-VISIT has begun developing the mandated report. However, they indicated that the earliest it will be available to the Congress is at the beginning of calendar year 2009. Officials stated that the report is expected to discuss the costs, benefits, and feasibility of fully implementing a biometric or non-biometric entry/exit system. If this were to occur, decisionmakers would have a better idea whether DHS can achieve the legislatively mandated capability to record the exit of travelers at land POEs. Follow-ups with US-VISIT in May and June 2011 resulted in no further information concerning implementation of this recommendation. As a result, this recommendation is closed as not implemented.

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