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RAY SUAREZ: The U.S. VISIT program, unveiled today, is designed to close the country’s borders to terrorists. It targets the estimated 24 million foreigners entering the country every year. Only those from 27 mostly European countries will be exempt from the new ID procedures.
The program is being introduced at 115 international airports and 14 seaports. It will be expanded to 50 land border crossings by the end of the year.
We get two views of this new antiterrorism program from Mark Kirkorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, and from Jeanne Butterfield, head of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
At the unveiling of the new program, Mark Kirkorian, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said the program was necessary to show the world that we can keep our borders open and our nation secure. Is this a way of doing it?
MARK KIRKORIAN: It’s absolutely a way of doing it. It’s not the silver bullet, in other words it is not the solution, it is part of the solution. There are holes left to fill, for instance, countries in Western Europe are still not included in the system.
There also is not tracking of the exit of people after, when they leave, which will give us an idea of who has stayed behind illegally. But all of those additional elements are in the works. In other words, this is a process really of getting better control over our borders, not a one-time event. And so this is the first step on a relatively long path in the direction we need to go.
RAY SUAREZ: But the situation before U.S. VISIT was to you not sufficient?
MARK KIRKORIAN: Almost laughable. It was a paper-based system of tracking the arrival and exit of foreign visitors. The little pieces of paper were often lost, the data was so low-quality that the Immigration Service’s own statistics office said that they didn’t use it, that it was useless data, in other words the data on who had and had not left the country. So something had to be done, because if you have a system that gives people time limited permission to be in the country, you have to have some way of knowing whether people have complied with the rules, and this is the beginning of developing that system.
RAY SUAREZ: Jeanne Butterfield, do you agree with Mark Kirkorian that something had to be done and is U.S. VISIT the something that is needed?
JEANNE BUTTERFIELD: Well, I agree certainly that we need to take measures to make ourselves more secure as a nation, as a people. But I think the question that has to be asked about U.S. VISIT is, does it really make us more secure? And I think it falls short, on several counts. It certainly is a massive data collection enterprise. But does it help us identify who is coming here to do us harm?
The data collection is only as good as the intelligence data with which we correlate all of these exits and entries. Our intelligence data is notoriously incomplete; there are 20 separate databases that have yet to be integrated. In fact, the data is exempt from the Privacy Act requirement that it even be accurate. So we’re collecting data on foreign visitors and comparing it to inadequate and often inaccurate databases.
I think our security needs to extend outward from our border. Our border should be the last line of defense. We are taking new measures at our U.S. consulates abroad and making watch lists and data available to the officers who grant visas, that’s a good thing. We are doing more in terms of pre-inspection and pre-clearance to match names with watch lists and data and then also transmitting passenger manifests. But I think that the example last week with the Air France flight or flights that were canceled is instructive. The data that was transmitted about six known terrorists turned out to be a small child, an elderly grandmother, and a Welsh insurance agent. Yet we’re saying that we’re prepared to put this into effect at 115 airports, screening 24, 26 million people a year. I don’t think it’s making us more secure.
RAY SUAREZ: At the outset, Mark Kirkorian, you conceded there were some holes. Are we technologically ready for this, as Jeanne Butterfield suggests? If we’re going to put these methods in place, are we ready to figure out what we’ve got once we’ve got it?
MARK KIRKORIAN: There’s no question that this is technologically doable. Every Wal-Mart in the world knows how many brooms it has on the shelf at the end of each day and what has been sold and what needs to be restocked. Every supermarket uses this kind of technology. There’s no reason, there’s no technological reason that this can’t be done and work properly. The problem is, or part of the problem is that Congress required this system to be developed in 1996, in response to earlier terrorist attacks, and then kept postponing implementation of the system.
So in a sense, until 2001, until these 9/11 attacks we really weren’t taking the development of this system seriously, so we’ve been playing catch-up since then. It takes time to get something like this to work. I mean, Wal-Mart and supermarket chains little by little rolled out their systems that are equivalent to this over a number of years, it’s going to take some time to iron out the bugs and to make this work the way we want it to work. There’s no question it can. And there’s no question that it should. The idea that it’s not perfect doesn’t mean that it can’t be done, this is a necessary though not sufficient component of any serious strategy of, for homeland security.
RAY SUAREZ: Once some of the remaining pieces are phased in, checking whether people actually leave when they’re supposed to, also taking a look at land crossings like those from Canada and Mexico, will this be possibly a more comprehensive thing that would answer some of your concerns?
JEANNE BUTTERFIELD: Well, I think again two questions. Number one, we can correlate entry with exit and determine if someone overstayed. But if we don’t have proper intelligence and good data, we don’t know if that person overstayed because they had an ear infection, because they were ill, because they missed their flight, or because there’s someone who intends to do us harm. So again, what is the purpose, is it making us more secure?
Secondly if we are going to put this entire huge data collection system into place, it has to be adequately funded so it can be done in a fair and efficient manner, in a way that doesn’t harm our economic security interests, in a way that doesn’t drive visitors and students and those coming to our country to do business away from us. That would be a harmful and unintended consequence. Congress only appropriated $378 million for the startup of this program. Experts estimate that it’s going to take $20 billion to put it into effect in the comprehensive way that is contemplated. Are we prepared to pay that cost? And again the question comes back to what benefit? Is it really making us more secure or is it merely assembling a huge database of information that doesn’t really tell us much of anything?
RAY SUAREZ: But none of us have flown internationally today, but from the pictures, it looked like they added one extra step toward coming into the country, you stand your ends of your index fingers onto a glass, a piece of glass, your picture is taken as you’re doing that and you move on. Is this something that’s really going to keep people out of the country?
JEANNE BUTTERFIELD: Well, you know, I hope not, I hope it can be done with adequate staffing and adequate technology and adequate resources. But imagine putting this into effect at the land borders, which is mandated to start happening a year out, a year from now. And you’re talking about screening not just 24 million but hundreds of millions of people in automobiles and trucks and cars. And again, we have to pay the price if we want it to be done to have a fair and efficient system.
RAY SUAREZ: Mark Kirkorian, is the United States government ready to pay the kinds of numbers that Jeanne Butterfield is talking about?
MARK KIRKORIAN: That’s a good question. I think the answer is ultimately going to be yes. But there’s no question that constructing an immigration infrastructure that works properly and does what it’s supposed to do costs money.
There’s this idea on the part of a lot of people that we can have extremely high levels of immigration, and somehow do it on the cheap. And it doesn’t work that way. Immigration and immigration control is very expensive if it’s going to be done properly, and before 9/11 the attitude seemed to be, you know, what harm could one more illegal alien do, what’s the big deal? Since 9/11 we have a lot clearer idea what the answer to that is.
So although it’s going to take a while to get to proper funding and proper staffing that is necessary, as Jeanne pointed out, to get this to work properly, we’re going to get there, because we have no alternative. This has to be done. And if it’s going to take several years and a significant amount of money to do it, that’s what we have to do.
RAY SUAREZ: Hasn’t there also been a tightening up of passport requirements for the production, the security coding of passports that goes some way toward doing some of the things that you want done?
JEANNE BUTTERFIELD: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: Outside the country.
JEANNE BUTTERFIELD: Exactly. Perimeters of security, and there are new biometric requirements that are going to be imposed on the visa waiver countries, the European countries next October.
But again, intelligence, intelligence, intelligence. The security is only as good as the data with which we are checking.
And unless we can get the various intelligence agencies to cooperate, unless we can combine the databases in them accessible, unless we can assure that the data in these databases is accurate, we’re going to be having many false positives, we’re going to be not only inconveniencing travelers to this country, but doing downright harm to ourselves in terms of tourism, in terms of trade, in terms of international studies, and I don’t want to see that outcome.
RAY SUAREZ: But don’t have you to start collecting it, Mark Kirkorian, to have it pool up in a way that you can do mixes and matches?
MARK KIRKORIAN: You have to start somewhere, there’s no question about it. I would agree with Jeanne that better intelligence data is important, there’s no question about it. But we, if we focus just on the quality of intelligence data without doing the legwork that’s necessary in developing this database of who is coming into the country and their fingerprints and their photographs, then it’s not going to do us any good because we’re not going to know where folks are, whether they’re in the country or not.
And another point I wanted to bring up that relates both to terrorism and to immigration control is that almost half of the al-Qaida terrorist who have worked in this country in the past decade have violated immigration laws, most of them visa overstayers, so this is actually a useful tool in disrupting future terrorist conspiracies, and that is, that’s the whole point to our homeland security efforts.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, I’m going to have to end it there. Thank you both for being with us.
MARK KIRKORIAN: Thank you.
JEANNE BUTTERFIELD: Thank you.