One of the most misunderstood programs at DHS has been the US-VISIT program. In some ways, US-VISIT has been a victim of its own success. By pulling off the feat of enrolling millions of visitors with unique biometric features and comparing that population against databases of wanted terrorists, criminals, and immigration violators without delays at the border or privacy violations, US-VISIT has made what seemed impossible routine.
Where US-VISIT has drawn criticism, it is normally because an aspect of the original blueprint has gone unfunded or been bogged down by Congressional pushback. Thus the idea of a single “person-centric” biometric database for all visitors visiting or working in the U.S. remains unfulfilled, and the exit system at airports was blocked by a combination of airline and airport pressure. The full implementation of US-VISIT has been a question of political will –- the technology works just fine.
US-VISIT recently announced an expansion of the program to enroll legal permanent residents, other immigrant visitors, asylees, and refugees. This new phase of the program, several years in the works, has come under criticism from some of the same stakeholders who originally delayed the enrollment of temporary visitors after it was originally required in 1996. Opposition was successful until 2003, after 9/11.
One editorial has called the proposed new phase of US VISIT “lunacy” and an example of “martial law.” What the critics have missed, however, is the power of biometrics to both speed legitimate travelers through government checkpoints and to increase confidence in all types of immigration. It is surely true that most of the people to be covered under the new regulation are law-abiding, productive members of society. The needles in the haystack, however, must be found, and biometric enrollment is the best way to do so.
Americans support legal immigration but only so long as they feel confident that our visitors have passed an appropriate security review – most no doubt would call the recent US-VISIT announcement common sense rather than lunacy.