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What's wrong with the U.S. Government protecting its borders?

There are right ways and there are wrong ways to improve safety and security. VISIT is another step down the wrong path to securing borders.

After September 11 the U.S. began a number of programmes that involved the 'registration' of Muslim and Arab immigrants, and others deemed to be of interest.

After the terrorist attacks, the Immigration Services identified 7602 individuals who shared similar 'characteristics' to the 19 hijackers, and aimed to interview them. These interviews were said to be 'voluntary', though few believed this to be true.1 Law enforcement officials interviewed 3,000 Muslim and Arab immigrants in the U.S. and considered the programme a success. However a Congressional study found that only 20 immigrants were arrested, and most of these were on immigration violations, and none on terrorism charges.2 Even at this time, however, the government list of individuals it intended to question contained many duplicate names and data entry errors. The practice was considered to have an adverse effect on relationships with these communities, however the response of the U.S. Government was to overplay the usefulness of this project.3 The results of these interviews were not analyzed, nor are there any plans to do so.

Consider SEVIS, the Student and Exchange Visa Information Service that forces schools across the country to submit information on foreign students (of which there are over 500,000). The system is actually based on an earlier law, from 1996 but later amended by the USA PATRIOT Act, to keep track of addresses of students, their enrolment status, whether they have a reduced course load, and monitoring 'optional practical training',4 on an Internet-based system.5 Despite assurances that SEVIS was not complex, expensive or burdensome and that it would provide accurate, unambiguous and current information, the polar opposite has resulted. In one situation, 1450 student files were stolen by malicious hackers from the University of Kansas.6 INS also had to extend the deadline for implementing the system due to complaints from schools that the system was too cumbersome and was neither responding properly,7 nor designed adequately.8 There have been additional complaints regarding data integrity and data security.9 Others have complained of unfair processes and students being wrongly thrown out of the country.10

Next came the 'Special Registration Procedures for Certain Non-immigrants'. This involved the forced registration, interviewing and fingerprinting of individuals. The programme originally started with fingerprinting and interviewing of citizens or nationals of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria, but also "any other non-immigrant identified by INS officers at airports, seaports and land ports of entry", based on criteria designated by the Secretary of Homeland Security.11 The programme was later extended to include individuals from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Of the 82,000 men who were registered, more than 13,000 were found to be living in the U.S. illegally, and were to be deported.12 The programme was later shut down in November 2003, one month before US-VISIT went live.13

The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System followed, targeting individuals specifically at the border. Ironically, registration was justified on the grounds that the European authorities have registered visitors for some years. According to the Department of Justice,

“Our European allies have had similar registration systems in place for decades and know the value of ensuring that foreign visitors are doing what they said they would do and living where they said they would live. The NSEERS system takes the European model and combines it with a modern intranet system so that files may be updated in real time at any INS office in the country.” 14

    Under NSEERS, these individuals would be 'fingerprinted and processed'. It was not limited to 'terrorist nations', however. According to the Attorney General,

    “So far, [Immigration and Naturalization Services/ has fingerprinted and registered individuals from 112 different countries. From the Baltic to the Balkans and from the Cape of Good Hope to the Rock of Gibraltar, visitors who may present elevated national security concerns will be included. No country is exempt. In the war against terrorism, we cannot afford to have tunnel vision”.15

      The general response to this practice was negative. After considerable pressure from foreign governments16 and civil liberties advocates, the programme was shut down.

      Or so we were led to believe. In fact, in April 2003 NSEERS was renamed as the US-VISIT programme. Although the US-VISIT programme would end the domestic special registration, it would register all visa-holders to the U.S., and was later extended to all visitors to the U.S. This would circumvent prior concerns from civil liberties advocates and lawyers that the earlier programs were discriminatory.

      Therefore, the history of this project is ensconced in discriminatory policies that were considered invasive and which led to problematic decisions, widespread concern, and technological chaos.

      When originally implemented, VISIT was designed only for the verification of visas that included biometrics. According to one report17 these new visa processes, are said to be causing delays in granting visas, and have cost U.S. firms at least 30 billion dollars since July 2002, According to some critics these burdens to entering borders are hurting the economy.18

      When the adoption of biometric passports encountered delays, the Department of Homeland Security then decided to include all visitors to the U.S. under the VISIT registration regime.

      The VISIT methodology is now going international. Ironically, Brazil retaliated to VISIT by fingerprinting U.S. citizens, which led to a complaint from Secretary of State Colin Powell because it was felt that Brazil was discriminating against U.S. citizens.19 Greek, Swiss, and Chinese officials, amongst many others have complained about the forced registration of their nationals, whilst other governments have been conspicuously silent.

      The U.S. has been calling for international co-operation on this scheme. According to Secretary Ridge,

      “I think it's critical that we move this along as quickly as possible, and the best way of facilitating that is not simply on a bilateral-by-bilateral basis, but to get as much multilateral buy-in as soon and as quickly as possible.”20

        Canada is moving towards fingerprinting and face scanning, as part of its 'Smartborders' programme.21 Britain is planning a similar system in order to deal with asylum seekers, possibly using iris scanning.22 Japan has set up a working group to look into possible biometric solutions.23 And the G8 and EU have been working on a standardising policy amongst member states, including the fingerprinting of their own nationals.

        The U.S. is in favour of this internationalisation. Even as the New York Times claims that "[the] government has wisely decided that [all visitors to the U.S.] will be included in [VISIT], which checks photographs and fingerprints against watch lists... it is hardly an onerous burden"24, it fails to recognise that soon Americans will be fingerprinted when they travel, all because of the U.S. policy. In yet another case of policy laundering, Department of Homeland Security undersecretary Asa Hutchinson when warned of retaliatory measures by other countries against US-VISIT by fingerprinting Americans, declared that:

        "We welcome other countries moving to this kind of system. We fully expect that other countries will adopt similar procedures."25

          Another U.S. official declared that the U.S. has no problems if similar requirements are imposed elsewhere.

          "We are in favour of these border measures generally. If there was such a requirement we would inform our citizens and it would be up to the traveller to decide."26

            This was not discussed in any parliament anywhere around the world, but rather in a classic case of function creep, the U.S. is leading the charge in a renegotiation of the fundamental terms of what constitutes an open society.


            • 1. GAO. 2003. HOMELAND SECURITY: Justice Department’s Project to Interview Aliens after September 11, 2001, GAO-03-459, April.
            • 2. Rachel Swarns. 2003. Report Raises Questions on Success of Immigrant Interviews. The New York Times, May 10.
            • 3. GAO, 2003, p.16.
            • 4. INS. 2002. Final Rule for Student and Exchange Visitor Information System Announced, Immigration and Naturalization Services. December 11.
            • 5. INS. 2002. STUDENT AND EXCHANGE VISITOR INFORMATION SYSTEM (SEVIS): Final Rule Implementing SEVIS, Immigration and Naturalization Service. December 11.
            • 6. Ferguson, Brandon. 2003. FBI Probes U. of Kansas Theft of Data. Associated Press, January 24.
            • 7. Sainz, Adrian. 2003. INS Extends its Foreign Student Deadline. Associated Press, January 30.
            • 8. Clayton, Mark. 2003. Colleges begin tracking foreign students' status. The Christian Science Monitor, February 4.
            • 9. Greene, Marcia Slacum. 2003. Computer Problems Slow Tracking of Foreign Students. Washington Post, March 26.
            • 10. Sutherland, John. 2003. Nowhere has post-9/11 paranoia struck more deeply than in American universities. Just ask Ali. The Guardian, September 1.
            • 11. Title 8 of Code of Federal Regulations (8CFR). Part 264.1.f.
            • 12. Swarns, Rachel L. 2003. More Than 13,000 May Face Deportation. The New York Times, June 7.
            • 13. Swarns, Rachel L. 2003. Special Registration for Arab Immigrants Will Reportedly Stop. The New York Times, November 21.
            • 14. Department of Justice. 2002. Attorney General's Remarks on the Implementation of NSEERS, Niagara Falls, New York: November 7.
            • 15. Department of Justice. 2002. Attorney General's Remarks on the Implementation of NSEERS, Niagara Falls, New York: November 7.
            • 16. Gedda, George. 2003. Powell: U.S. Aware of Registration Fears. Associated Press, January 29.
            • 17. BBC News. 2004. Visa delays 'cost US firms $30bn'. BBC Online, June 2.
            • 18. Shapiro, Gary J. 2004. Business Needs a Better Visa System. Washington Post Editorial Section, July 6.
            • 19. Khalip, Andrei. 2004. Samba Beat Keeps U.S. Tourists Coming to Brazil. Reuters, January 16.
            • 20. Ridge, Tom. 2004. Transcript of Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University “Transatlantic Homeland Security Conference”, Department of Homeland Security. September 13.
            • 21. Government of Canada. 2004. Securing and Open Society: Canada's national Security Policy, Ottawa: Privy Council Office. April.
            • 22. Hennessy, Patrick. 2004. Blair backs electronic border checks. The Daily Telegraph, June 13.
            • 23. Reuters. 2004. Japan Eyes Biometrics to Tighten Immigration Steps. Reuters, June 23.
            • 24. The New York Times. 2004. Visitors and Their Fingerprints. The New York Times, April 26.
            • 25. Swarns, Rachel L. 2004. Millions More Travelers to U.S. to Face Fingerprints and Photos. The New York Times, April 3.
            • 26. Waterfield, Bruno. 2004. e-Communications ‘focus of terror threat’. EUPolitix, March 19.