September 11th exposed numerous security flaws in our country, but none were more glaring than our problems with border security. The 9/11 terrorists came in and out of the country easily. Expert analyses have found that almost all of the 19 terrorists should have had their visa applications denied and been kept out of the country. And many of the terrorists’ visas had expired, but there was no effective way of tracking visitors who overstay their visas and notifying government officials of their presence. A major overhaul of our border security was in order, and fortunately for the country, Jim Williams and the staff he assembled are on the job.
A central part of this overhaul has been the establishment of US-VISIT, a border management program that collects both point of entry and exit information from visitors to the United States. Jim Williams, who serves as director of the US-VISIT program, has taken on the daunting task of getting this program off the ground quickly.
Beginning with virtually no staff, he was faced with tight deadlines for implementing the program. Williams quickly assembled a team of talented officials to carry out the program’s critical mission, and successfully met those deadlines on time and within budget. Although the program remains very much in its infancy, there are already initial signs of success.
US-VISIT now collects biometric (digital fingerprints and photographs) and biographical data from visa applicants and visitors to the United States at 115 airports, 15 seaports and the 50 busiest land ports. More than 27 million visitors have been processed through US-VISIT without adversely increasing wait times, a main concern of the implementation of the program.
In the first 17 months after US-VISIT was created, matching fingerprints and biographic information against the US-VISIT database has enabled State Department consular officers around the world to deny U.S. visas to approximately 7,000 visa applicants. More than a third of these visas were denied because the applicants’ fingerprints matched those on various U.S. government law enforcement and security lists.
At the same time, fingerprints and other data from US-VISIT have enabled inspectors from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to deny entry to approximately 632 people who arrived at U.S. borders seeking to enter the country. Furthermore, the US-VISIT program has helped special agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrest approximately 39 people through fingerprint matches, investigative leads and other information.
Williams is quick to credit his staff and DHS leadership for the program’s successes, and he notes that “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make America a safer place by devoting our time and talents to improving our country’s immigration and border management system.”
US-VISIT is still a long way from completing its mandate to implement a fully interoperable and modern suite of biometrically enabled border and immigration management systems. Achieving this mandate will enhance the nation’s security, facilitate legitimate travel and trade, ensure the integrity of the immigration system and protect the privacy of our visitors. Knowing how much hard work is ahead to fulfill the promise of this program, it is reassuring to know that the US-VISIT team is doing its best to make it happen.