September 13, 2002
High-tech system tracks visitors
New security plan for all U.S. ports gets mixed reviews
By JOE CANTLUPE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – A young Mexican woman promised she
would stay only six months in this country to visit family in Orange
County and see Disneyland. At the San Ysidro border crossing
recently, she was given an "arrival-departure" card and told to
return it to immigration authorities when she left the United States.
The odds are she won't.
The information on the cards, including the visitors' names and
addresses, are supposed to go into an Immigration and
Naturalization Service database so the agency can track the
comings and goings of foreign visitors.
Yet only 5 percent of the visitors who arrived at border crossings
in San Diego and Imperial counties last year returned their
so-called I-94 cards, so officials have no idea if the visitors ever
The issue has gained greater urgency in the year since the Sept.
11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Now the INS is scrambling to meet a series of congressionally
imposed deadlines to replace the current I-94s with an electronic
"entry-exit" system tying together the nation's air, land and sea
The first phase of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration
System debuted this week. Under the project, some visitors'
fingerprints would be matched against a database of terrorists and
Attorney General John Ashcroft this month promised it would be
ready to install at all of the nation's ports – including San Diego –
by Oct. 1.
But INS sources said some port managers were caught off guard
by Ashcroft's announcement, and they predicted the agency would
have trouble meeting Ashcroft's timetable.
The project has generated controversy among civil liberties
groups and American Muslins who say that visitors from Arab
nations will be targeted. Authorities say fingerprints and
photographs would be taken of visitors from Iran, Iraq, Syria,
Sudan and Libya, among other places.
The latest effort is a small piece of a puzzle Congress has been
trying to solve for years: How to keep track of the arrival and
departure of visitors.
Congress in 1996 backed a high-tech system, then balked over
concerns about trade. The attacks brought new momentum behind
automated entry-exit systems – complete with biometric cards and
other high-tech features. Congress now wants them to be installed
around the country in a staggered timetable over the next two
years. The INS hopes to deploy new entry-exit systems at all 300
ports of entry by the end of 2004.
The new high-tech systems will replace the current I-94 cards
and enable the INS to keep better track of foreign visitors,
officials say. For instance, when visitors are staying beyond their
visa deadlines or leave the country, the information will be
For now, however, immigration inspectors continue to use the
I-94 cards and plug information obtained by visitors into what
some critics term an error-prone database created 20 years ago.
(The I-94 form is geared toward long-term foreign visitors, who
represent about 10 percent of the estimated 650,000 people who
cross daily into San Diego from Mexico.)
The 5 percent return rate of I-94 cards at the San Diego and
Imperial border crossings contrasts sharply with returns reported
from most air and sea ports, according to immigration officials.
Nationwide, INS officials say 80 percent of departure cards are
usually returned – mostly because the United States requires
airlines and shipping companies to provide passenger manifests to
Still, authorities admit that millions of I-94 cards remain
unaccounted for each year.
The antiquated system worries Justice Department officials and
some lawmakers on Capitol Hill, especially since nearly half of this
country's estimated 8 million illegal-immigrant population includes
people who overstayed their visas.
"It's not a viable system," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, a
member of the House immigration subcommittee. "It's a
throwback to the days of old, and we've got to stop doing the
days of old."