Homeland Security:

Strategic Solution for US-VISIT Program Needs to Be Better Defined, Justified, and Coordinated

GAO-08-361: Published: Feb 29, 2008. Publicly Released: Mar 31, 2008.

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The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program's goals are to enhance the security of U.S. citizens and visitors, facilitate legitimate travel and trade, ensure the integrity of the U.S. immigration system, and protect the privacy of visitors. It is to use biometric and biographic information to control and monitor the pre-entry, entry, status, and exit of foreign visitors. GAO was asked to determine (1) whether DHS has defined and economically justified a strategic solution for meeting US-VISIT goals; (2) the biometric technology options DHS has considered and the basis for the selected options; and (3) DHS's efforts to define, manage, and coordinate the relationships between US-VISIT and other immigration and border management programs. To accomplish this, GAO assessed key program documentation against relevant criteria and examined available biometric research.

DHS has partially defined a strategic solution for meeting US-VISIT's goals. In particular, the US-VISIT program office has defined and begun to develop a key capability known as "Unique Identity," which is to establish a single identity for all individuals who interact with any immigration and border management organization by capturing the individual's biometrics, including 10 fingerprints and a digital image, at the earliest possible interaction. However, the program office has yet to define and economically justify a comprehensive strategic solution for controlling and monitoring the exit of foreign visitors, which is critical to accomplishing the program's goals. Further, the department did not economically justify its ongoing investment in Unique Identity in a timely fashion. Specifically, the program office did not justify its investment until about 14 months after selecting and pursuing an alternative solution and obligating about $65 million. The absence of a fully defined strategic solution and timely economic justification hinders informed decision making about the best course of action for accomplishing strategic program goals and inhibits the ability to measure performance and promote accountability. DHS considered various biometric technologies, including fingerprints, facial, and iris technologies, and continues to use fingerprints as its foundational biometric technology. The focus on fingerprint technology is appropriate, given the opportunity to leverage existing DHS and Federal Bureau of Investigation identification systems and databases and to establish a single identity mechanism for all immigration and border management programs. In addition, research into fingerprints and other forms of biometric identification, such as facial recognition and iris scanning, show that fingerprints continue to be the most accurate biometric for identification purposes. DHS is taking a range of evolving actions, primarily at the department level, to coordinate relationships among US-VISIT and other immigration and border management programs. Thus far, this evolution has yet to progress to the point of reflecting the full scope of key practices that GAO has previously identified as essential to enhancing and sustaining collaborative efforts that span multiple organizations. To its credit, the department has defined common outcomes through its strategic plan and enterprise architecture and has taken steps to implement other collaboration practices, such as leveraging resources across its screening programs and developing screening performance indicators. However, the US-VISIT program office has yet to fully define its relationships with other immigration and border management programs. As a result, the department is at increased risk of introducing the inefficiencies and reduced effectiveness that result from suboptimizing how these programs collectively support its immigration and border management goals and objectives.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DHS has not developed a plan for a comprehensive exit capability and will apparently not do so until fiscal year 2013 at the earliest. As of July 2012, the department had not yet announced its final decision to proceed with air/sea or land exit development and deployment, issued a final rule for air and sea exit, or defined its strategy for land exit, all of which are necessary for the US-VISIT program to proceed with developing a plan for a comprehensive exit capability. The President's fiscal year 2013 budget request for DHS asks for $9.4 million to be used, in part, for the development of a comprehensive plan for the implementation of an exit capability, which means that such a plan will not be developed until fiscal year 2013 at the earliest.

    Recommendation: To ensure that US-VISIT's strategic solution, including a comprehensive exit solution, is better defined, economically justified, and coordinated, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Undersecretary for National Protection and Programs to have the US-VISIT Program Director (1) develop a plan for a comprehensive exit capability, which includes, at a minimum, a description of the capability to be deployed, the cost of developing, deploying and operating the capability, identification of key stakeholders and their respective roles and responsibilities, key milestones, and measurable performance indicators; and (2) develop an analysis of costs, benefits, and risks for proposed exit solutions before large sums of money are committed on those solutions, and use the analysis in selecting the final solution.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS has largely addressed the intent of this recommendation by establishing various means for the US-VISIT program to better collaborate with other immigration and border management programs using the practices identified in our report. (1) The establishment of the US-VISIT Executives Stakeholder Board in 2009 has created a mechanism by which the US-VISIT program can be monitored, evaluated, and can report on its own results. The board, which meets quarterly and is composed of representatives from across the border management enterprise, receives reports on US-VISIT's ongoing activities and results, as well as from stakeholders who are in position to help the program meet its goals. (2) In 2010, DHS reaffirmed IDENT as its biometric storage and matching service provider, thus enabling the department to leverage this resource by sharing it among the multiple DHS components that collect or rely on access to biometric records. (3) US-VISIT's ability to provide a high-confidence, established, verified identify supports the common outcomes required by a wide array of homeland security-related activities. These activities include visa issuance, screening at ports of entry, immigration benefits adjudication, immigration enforcement, and the vetting of access rights to critical infrastructure. (4) In January 2012, US-VISIT reported that it was working with foreign governments to further enhance the program's screening abilities through data exchanges.

    Recommendation: To ensure that US-VISIT's strategic solution, including a comprehensive exit solution, is better defined, economically justified, and coordinated, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the appropriate DHS parties involved in defining, managing, and coordinating relationships across the department's border and immigration management programs to address the program collaboration shortcomings identified in this report, such as fully defining the relationships between US-VISIT and other immigration and border management programs and, in doing so, to employ the collaboration practices discussed in this report.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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