TESTIMONY OF AL MARTINEZ-FONTSTESTIMONY OF AL MARTINEZ-FONTS
SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO THE SECRETARY (PRIVATE SECTOR)
DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY
BEFORE THE House Committee on Judiciary
SUBCOMMITTEE ON IMMIGRATION, BORDER SECURITY AND CLAIMS
March 18, 2004
Chairman Hostettler, Ranking Member Jackson Lee and other distinguished Members, it is a pleasure to appear before you today to discuss the Department of Homeland Security's US-VISIT program and how the Private Sector Office works with the US-VISIT Program Office to engage the business community in this critical program.
Under the charter given to us by Congress and the President, the mission of the Private Sector Office is to provide America's business community with a direct line of communication to the Department of Homeland Security. With the guidance and assistance of Secretary Ridge and our Department colleagues, the Private Sector Office works directly with individual businesses, trade associations, and other professional and non-governmental organizations to share information about Department programs and opportunities.
The private sector is a fundamental partner in the Department's nationwide efforts to secure our homeland. The rewards of the Department's growing relationships with the private sector are evident in the program we are here today to discuss.
US-VISIT represents yet another major milestone in enhancing our nation's security and our efforts to reform our borders. It is a significant step towards bringing integrity back to our immigration and border enforcement systems. Perhaps most importantly it represents our government's commitment to leveraging 21st century technology to ensure we have both economic security and national security, because we cannot have one without the other.
As head of the Department of Homeland Security's Private Sector Office, it has been my job to engage all sectors of the business community. It is critical for the voices of the private sector to be heard during all phases of the development and rollout of US-VISIT. Their contributions and input have been essential in helping to ensure the effective deployment of US-VISIT.
It is important to note that the private sector has been an important partner throughout the development and rollout of US-VISIT. As you know, the first increment of US-VISIT was completed on time and on budget, and we thank our partners in the private sector for helping to make this early success a reality. All facets of the aviation community were integral factors as we planned, piloted and launched US-VISIT last year.
My colleagues Mr. Mocny and Mr. Jacksta have shared their thoughts and perspectives on US-VISIT in terms of the breadth and continuity of the security initiative. As the Department's advocate for the private sector, I would like to share with you the three basic roles my Office has played in the formation of US-VISIT. These include: engaging the private sector; listening to their comments; and responding to their concerns.
Engaging the Private Sector
There are roughly 25 million businesses in the United States, and in order to reach as many of them as possible, our engagement and outreach strategy has been focused on leveraging our relationships wherever possible. These relationships include the various trade and industry associations who communicate with and educate their members and constituents on relevant business issues. By clustering our outreach into distinct segments, we have been able to communicate the relevant points about US-VISIT to these business groups. Groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, Business Executives for National Security, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, and the Business Roundtable bring distinct voices and valuable perspective to the Department's efforts but these voices and perspectives are not alone.
Throughout Increment 1 of US-VISIT's development and deployment, private sector members in the transportation, travel and tourism communities were not only impacted the most but had the most to offer in terms of input and feedback. Because this input has been vital to the Program's success, we have focused much of our outreach on engaging these business groups on an on-going basis. In the months leading up to deployment of Increment 1 capabilities at airports and seaports, the Private Sector Office, in partnership with the US-VISIT Program Office, held frequent conference calls with the airline, airport, seaport and general travel and tourism community to ensure they were kept up-to-date and informed on a variety of aspects. The airlines and airports, in particular, were integral partners as we planned, piloted and launched US-VISIT last year. As you know, Increment 1 was completed on time and on budget, and we thank our partners in the private sector for helping to make this early success a reality.
This focus on engagement continues as we prepare to accomplish the Program's 2004 milestones. Most notable of these is the on-going testing and evaluation of a departure confirmation system at airports and seaports, and the rollout of the US-VISIT capability at the 50 busiest land ports of entry. Our efforts remain focused on engaging the trade and industry groups, mostly through meetings with one or more associations, as well as speaking engagements and panel discussions at town hall forums, conferences and conventions. I know that the US-VISIT Program Office maintains an in-depth database to manage the outreach and track the responses and feedback from hundreds of international organizations, trade groups, non-profit organizations and businesses, and communicates with the hundreds who have opted to receive regular US-VISIT updates through an e-mail newsletter.
Listening to their Comments
US-VISIT's early focus on actively engaging the private sector has created enormous opportunities for the Department and the Private Sector Office to hear directly from these most important Program stakeholders. We have heard their concerns about our ability to implement the Program's measures without sacrificing our freedoms or ability to conduct business. One thing I have found in my own personal involvement in this Program is that once accurate information is introduced to address rumors and misperceptions, concerns and fears subside and people once again focus upon our collective need and commitment to securing the borders without slowing the flow of commerce and people.
As a result of our listening to our private sector partners, we have been able to take the first steps at successfully implementing US-VISIT at all of our nation's air and sea ports of entry. This has created the kind of measure we as a Department need to continue to strive for in all of our efforts with the private sector. By communicating our commitment to the private sector and their interests throughout this effort, the Department and US-VISIT have been able to make a significant difference in the way we do business in America. From the US Chamber of Commerce to the airline industry, we have heard from most every sector in the private sector, each of them saying US-VISIT has exceeded their expectations.
While the US-VISIT program has received praise for its execution and operation thus far, we have heard some concerns about the land border implementation. We have also been fielding questions about the departure confirmation system at airports and seaports.
The area with the most concerns by far is along our nation's southwest border. I have been actively engaged in reaching out to these border communities, most notably through key groups such as the Border Trade Alliance. From both personal and professional experience, I understand and empathize with many of the concerns the communities along the border have regarding any effort or program that might impact border operations and activities. My previous professional experiences as both a banker and not-for-profit founder providing job skills training and small business development in El Paso and San Antonio, Texas have helped me to understand and address the economic and personal concerns of the private sector. Furthermore, my experiences in living and working in Mexico for six years have provided additional perspective. Right now, some people in these affected communities are imagining clogged borders and economic disruption. My Office and others in the Department have routinely heard, "Don't slow trade, don't separate families, and don't ruin the border."
We have no intentions of causing any harm to these border communities and take seriously President Bush's and Congress' direction that we implement a land border solution that does not slow the free flow of trade and people across our borders. While we all understand the challenges, it is important that these businesses understand the unwavering commitment of this Department to modernize our borders, harmonize our systems and create a better, faster, more secure border.
DHS has been working closely with the US Department of Transportation as part of its on-going outreach to private sector groups to ensure that we listen to their concerns and apply them to the Program's implementation. For example, integrating programs like FAST (Free and Secure Trade) with US-VISIT should enable truckers to move their goods across the border faster than they do today.
Responding to Private Sector Concerns
Perhaps the most important thing DHS has done to respond to private sector concerns is to engage the brightest minds from the business community to develop the optimum solution for US-VISIT. We heard and acted upon those concerns during the Program's kick-off this year. Rather than start the US-VISIT effort on January 1st at the height of holiday travel, the Program was initiated on January 5, 2004, allowing everyone a degree or two of flexibility.
Thanks to a combination of policy and technology solutions, we are now starting to paint a very new picture of the border, one that includes faster travel without compromising security. In the Private Sector Office's quest to communicate the truth about US-VISIT - at air, sea and land ports of entry - we are seeing that people can now begin to visualize this reality. This reality can only happen through continued and active engagement with the Department's various public and private sector partners. By working together, we can all share with one another our commitment to keeping America's doors open and our nation secure.
As the US-VISIT Program continues to be implemented, the Private Sector Office, in partnership with the Department's and Program's leaders, will continue to identify ways to actively engage the private sector. As our partners in securing our homeland, the private sector should know at all times that the Department hears their voices and believes their opinions matter. As their advocate within the Department, my staff and I have pledged to use every tool available to us to demonstrate to them and to all others our commitment to use 21st century technology and innovation to create a 21st century border. With the guidance and assistance of the Members of this Committee and the Congress I am confident that we will be successful in that effort.
I thank the Members for allowing me to share my comments today and I look forward to addressing any questions that you might have.