Worth Our While?
Randolph C. Hite of GAO, who has written reports for Congress on the performance of US-VISIT, notes the limitations of any program securing POEs: Even if the program could be implemented perfectly, determined criminals and terrorists would likely only be deferred to other means of entry, such as sneaking across undefended borders. US-VISIT, however, is not only imperfect, but also incomplete.
Even so, most experts say that the country has seen a return on investment for US-VISIT’s entry component, as distinct from the exit component. Susan Ginsburg, a staff member for the 9/11 Commission and now director of security and mobility programs for Washington, D.C.’s nonprofit Migration Policy Institute, says that US-VISIT bolsters the security of the U.S. visa process, which was exploited by the 9-11 hijackers. “Although it could be defeated, it would really be quite rare, and that should not stop us from having a program,” she says.
While it is impossible to quantify the worth of a security measure’s deterrence value, Mocny of DHS asserts that US-VISIT creates deterrence, a view shared by Jena Baker McNeil, a homeland security policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation think tank, also in Washington, D.C. She acknowledges that a determined, would-be terrorist who is rejected entry under US-VISIT at a POE might well attempt to enter the U.S. at an unprotected point on the border, but she notes that the individual will have been frustrated, and his plot complicated by the country’s border security. That interruption could derail the plan or force the person to delay, possibly giving law enforcement time to discover the plot.
It’s the value of US-VISIT’s proposed exit element that divides experts. Some, including McNeil, note that the program is of no value in detecting visa overstays. Without full exit monitoring at air, sea, and land crossings, it will have little value, he says.
In his recent paper Is it Time to Rethink U.S. Entry and Exit Processes?, RAND Corp. senior economist C. Richard Neu suggested abandonment of biometric data collection at exit. He recommends that the government strengthen existing, biographical methods of departure monitoring, which include CBP’s I-94 arrival and departure forms, which would be less costly. That might allow DHS to achieve much of the US-VISIT’s desired goal of establishing that an individual has left and where he or she went next.
Ginsburg disagrees. She supports full implementation of exit monitoring, which she argues would pay dividends in providing data for analyzing suspected terrorist or criminal travel.
Full implementation, Ginsburg says, would further strengthen confidence in the U.S. travel system, and that could help justify the lifting of restrictions on visas issued to students and professionals, which many professionals say are affecting the country’s ability to compete in the global marketplace.
As for the cost of full implementation, DHS has yet to respond to a repeated request from GAO for an estimate of US-VISIT’s full lifecycle cost. A ballpark figure would allow Congress to assess the program’s return on investment (ROI) based on risk reduction, Hite says.
But an ROI analysis would be difficult even with a cost estimate because it would require quantifying the program’s deterrence value, others say.
Some data in that regard does exist. At a cost so far of roughly $2 billion, US-VISIT has resulted in the rejection of more than 8,000 attempted entries, or about 1,500 each year, out of 175 million nonimmigrant entries in 2008. Among these rejections were, for example, a range of criminals attempting document fraud.
Success stories include a foreign criminal who arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and presented his twin brother’s travel documents. His fingerprints gave him away, and he was denied entry, DHS says. One would-be immigrant sought asylum in the United States using an alias and a phony date of birth, but his fingerprints revealed pending charges for rape, assault, and kidnapping. DHS spokeswoman Anna Hinken says the agency cannot confirm whether US-VISIT has resulted in denial of entry to travelers with suspected ties to terrorism.
Mocny says the difficulty of assessing the program’s worth is not unique in government or in security. “In any big, government program, it’s always difficult to measure that ROI, because what we do is prevent bad things from happening,” he says. “And how do you know what you’ve prevented?”
Joseph Straw is an assistant editor at Security Management.