WASHINGTON --In a major blow to the Bush administration's efforts to secure borders, domestic security officials have for now given up on plans to develop a facial or fingerprint recognition system to determine whether a vast majority of foreign visitors leave the country, officials say.
Domestic security officials had described the system, known as U.S. Visit, as critical to security and important in efforts to curb illegal immigration. Nearly 30 percent of the overall total of illegal immigrants are believed to have overstayed their visas, a congressional report says.
Tracking visitors took on particular urgency after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when it became clear that some of the hijackers had remained in the country after their visas had expired.
But in recent days, officials at the Homeland Security Department have conceded that they lack the financing and technology to meet their deadline to have exit-monitoring systems at the 50 busiest land border crossings by December 2007.
A vast majority of foreign visitors enter and exit by land from Mexico and Canada.
A report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, reiterated those findings, reporting that the administration believes it will take five to 10 years to develop technology that might allow for a cost-effective departure system.
Domestic security officials, who have allocated $1.7 billion since the 2003 fiscal year to track arrivals and departures, argue that creating the program with the existing technology would be prohibitively costly.
They say it would require more employees, new buildings and roads at border crossings, and would likely hamper the flow of commerce across those borders.
Congress ordered the creation of such a system in 1996.
In an interview last week, the assistant secretary for homeland security policy, Stewart A. Baker, estimated that an exit system at the land borders would cost "tens of billions of dollars" and said the department had concluded that such a program was not feasible, at least for the time being.
"It is a pretty daunting set of costs, both for the U.S. government and the economy," Baker said. "Congress has said, 'We want you to do it.' We are not going to ignore what Congress has said. But the costs here are daunting. ...
"When you have to sit down and compare all the good ideas people have developed against each other, with a limited budget, you have to make choices that are much harder."
The news sent alarm bells ringing in Congress, where some Republicans and Democrats warned that suspending the monitoring plan would leave the United States vulnerable.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who is a departing subcommittee chairman on the House International Relations Committee, said:
"There will not be border security in this country until we have a knowledge of both entry and exit. We have to make a choice. Do we want to act and control our borders, or do we want to have tens of millions of illegals continuing to pour into our country?"
Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who is set to be chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, also expressed concern.
"It is imperative that Congress work in partnership with the department to develop a comprehensive border security system that ensures we know who is entering and exiting this country and one that cannot be defeated by imposters, criminals and terrorists," Thompson said in a statement yesterday.
In January 2004, domestic security officials began fingerprint scanning for arriving visitors. The program has screened more than 64 million travelers and prevented more than 1,300 criminals and immigration violators from entering, officials said.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and other officials often call the program a singular achievement in making the country safer. U.S. Visit fingerprints and photographs 2 percent of the people entering the country; Americans and most Canadians and Mexicans are exempt.
Efforts to determine whether visitors actually leave have faltered. Departure monitoring would help officials hunt for foreigners who have not left, if necessary. Domestic security officials say, however, it would be too costly to conduct fingerprint or facial recognition scans for land departures. Officials have experimented with less costly technologies, including a system that would monitor by radio data embedded in a travel form carried by foreigners as they depart by foot or in vehicles.
Tests of that technology, Radio Frequency Identification, found a high failure rate. At one border point, the system correctly identified 14 percent of the 166 vehicles carrying the embedded documents, the General Accountability Office reported.
The congressional investigators noted "numerous performance and reliability problems" with the technology and said it remained unclear how domestic security officials would be able to meet their legal obligation to create an exit program.