Department of Homeland Security Press Release and Remarks on the US-VISIT Program

Monday, May 19, 2003, Washington, D.C.

At the Department of Homeland Security----my responsibility centers on the borders of the United States. What we do at our borders impacts our security, our economy and our relationship with the international community.

For that reason, I am grateful for this opportunity to talk about the future of our borders at CSIS. Your scholarly and bipartisan approach is the right mix for border policy discussions

At the turn of the last century, the heart of America was defined by Emma Lazarus's inspiring words affixed to the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

A century later, the yearning has not changed---nor has America's heart. As last week's tragedy in Texas reminds us, people still risk their lives for the freedom and opportunity America offers. In that case, 18 immigrants died in a suffocating tractor-trailer. Five of the nine suspects are in custody. Our hearts and prayers go out to those men and women who were so cruelly and criminally abandoned by their smugglers.

Immigrants still search for the American Dream. And when they find it, all Americans benefit.

That is because immigrants don't just contribute to our country, they help define our character and they help defend our freedoms. It was Irving Berlin, a Russian/Jewish immigrant who wrote, "God Bless America." And we could not watch "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," if not for Frank Capra, an Italian-American who rode in steerage to America at age six.

President Bush was right when he said immigrants "make our nation more, not less, American."

Of course, immigrant soldiers also defend our freedoms. And I am proud that our Department has granted citizenship, in some cases posthumously, to several in that war.

We should remember that immigrants and naturalized citizens make up about five percent of our armed forces

Marine Lance Corporal Jose Gutierrez, a citizen of Guatemala and resident of California died in Iraq, a family member said, "He wanted to give back to a nation that gave him so much."

Truly, immigrants have contributed greatly to our nation

Today, however, we face new and unprecedented dangers. Some who cross our borders do not yearn to breathe free - they yearn to destroy freedom. They do not seek a better life -- but an opportunity to weaken America and to take innocent lives.

On September 11th, 2001, nineteen terrorists took advantage of our welcoming nature ... and took the lives of 3,000 of our fellow citizens - and, I might add, citizens from other nations, too. Many of the 19 hijackers had violated the terms of their visa -- and nearly all had incomplete or incorrect application forms.

It should be noted that one of the hijackers, Hani Hanjour, had violated the terms of his student visa, not showing up to school as required. Another, Mohammed Atta, had flying lessons. Both could have been stopped by an effective US VISIT system.

Our immigration policies must recognize and reflect this new reality. Congress has directed us to improve the system and make it work. The Department of Homeland Security has a unique opportunity to fulfill that mission. It's never been more important that we do so.

Earlier this month, Secretary Ridge announced that the Department of Homeland Security would meet the deadline given to us by Congress to install an entry-exit system at America's airports and seaports by year's end. This will be done through our US VISIT program.

Today I am pleased to lay out more of the details as to how we will accomplish that goal, and how our US VISIT system will fit into the comprehensive border information system necessary to give America a 21st Century "smart border" -- one that speeds through legitimate trade and travel, but stops terrorists in their tracks.

First, let's look at the system that is needed. Information will be the cornerstone of this effort. Actually, it's always been that way. In 1819, one of America's first immigration laws was passed, requiring that ships' captains provide a list of all passengers brought in on their voyage.

But in the 21st Century, border security can no longer be just a coastline, or a line on the ground between two nations. It's also a line of information in a computer, telling us who is in this country, for how long, and for what reason. We are hiring 1,700 new inspectors and hundreds of Border Patrol Agents.

In the 21st Century, it is not enough to place inspectors at our ports of entry to monitor the flow of goods and people. We must also have a "virtual border" that operates far beyond the land border of the United States.

Under US VISIT, we will eventually have information on our visitors -- collected at our consular officers far from our borders -- that will confirm identity, measure security risks and assess the legitimacy of travel of visitors to the U.S.

For people who require visas, those visas will use biometric features that will enable us to identify the visitors when they arrive at an airport or seaport and to access the information about that visitor. This information will be available at our ports of entry as well as throughout our entire immigration enforcement system.

Through this "virtual border," we will know who violates our entry requirements, who overstays or violates the terms of their stay, and who should be welcome again.

In addition, the DHS will, for the first time, oversee the visa issuance process. We'll be responsible for maintaining its integrity, working through and with the consular offices of the U.S. State Department. This unity of border and visa responsibilities will allow for a better flow of information and a coordinated response to immigration violations.

We will also work with State to encourage Visa Waiver countries to use tamper-proof passports that include biometric identifiers as soon as possible -- and to consider security needs first when issuing them.

In fact, Visa Waiver countries are required to use biometrics by 10-26-04 - under Congressional mandate.

As a result, we'll be able to require proof of identification from foreign national visitors to the U.S. We'll do so through a minimum of two biometric identifiers - initially, fingerprints and photographs; later, as the technology is perfected, additional forms such as facial recognition or iris scans may be used as well.

Let me add, biometric technology is not new. More than six million Border Crossing Cards for frequent crossers have been issued in the last five years, each with two fingerprints and a digital photograph embedded on the back.

In fact, a recent pilot program to decode the cards resulted in the capture of 250 impostors trying to cheat the system. We will make sure that the right equipment and training is in place to make it work on a large scale.

The business community knows all about biometrics too, and they've been working long and hard on solutions. As we build US VISIT, we realize that the best solutions will not come from DC, but from entrepreneurs. We cannot secure our borders without the initiative and expertise of the private sector.

And I'm pleased to say that we will work with industry to issue an RFP by no later than this fall.

This is the overall picture - let me explain how the first phase of US VISIT will work.

By January 1st of next year, if a foreign visitor flies into Dulles or JFK or LAX or another international airport or arrives at a U.S. seaport- the visitor's travel documents will be scanned. Then, once a photo and fingerprint are taken, the person will then be checked against lists of those who should be denied entry for any reason - terrorist connections, criminal violations, or past visa violations.

The information requested will include immigrant and citizenship status; nationality; the country of residence; and the person's address while in the United States. Incomplete information will no longer be good enough.

In 99.9 percent of the cases, the visitor will simply be wished a good day and sent on their way. But with that small percentage of "hits," our country will be made much safer, and our immigration system will be given a foundation of integrity that has been lacking for too long.

When that visitor departs, we will verify his or her identity and capture their departure information. This tells the Department of Homeland Security if that person entered legally may have stayed illegally as the 9/11 terrorists did. Currently, there is no way to know when or even if our visitors leave - but under US VISIT, that will change.

US VISIT will not be a static system, but a dynamic one, able to track changes in immigration status and make updates and adjustments accordingly. For example, if a foreign visitor enters on a 90-day tourist visa but must stay for an emergency medical reason, the system should track it.

Congress has appropriated nearly $400 million for this year alone to establish it at our airports and seaports.

Our next question is to establish it at the major land ports of entry. We are communicating with Congress and aggressively building our capability to meet the challenge.

Our next challenge is this: how do you handle the massive amount of information that will be generated? That is my next announcement.

The Department of Homeland Security is establishing a new capability within ICE, our Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement - an Office of Compliance. This team of compliance officers will review US VISIT information on visa violations, analyze it and refer appropriate leads to our field enforcement units for investigation.

As information increases, the Office of Compliance must grow the capability to track the cases and refer them, when appropriate, for investigation.

All of this information will become part of a foreign visitor's ongoing travel record, so their correct information can follow them wherever they go.

The information will be made available to inspectors, agents, consular officials and others with a true need to know.

Law enforcement will also have access to the information, but only for strictly defined and limited purposes.

Let me assure you: our Department's Privacy Officer, Nuala O'Connor Kelly, will closely monitor the effort to safeguard people's information from misuse.

US VISIT is just the latest step in the DHS's "Information Modernization." In a very brief time, under the leadership of Secretary Ridge, we are making great progress in capturing and sharing information across the entire landscape of homeland security - from border and transportation security to critical infrastructure protection to emergency response.

The common denominator here is integration - making sure our systems, technology and people are not limited by unnecessary barriers.

Information is worth very little if it's stuck in an agency "stovepipe" or trapped in a maze of outdated technology, where the right people cannot get to it in time to make a difference. US VISIT will coordinate our border information and our enforcement and compliance efforts.

Take, for instance, SEVIS [Student and Exchange Visitor Information System]. SEVIS was designed to let university officials electronically update us on changes in the status of their international students.

It's a powerful tool for combating fraud. To date, nearly 3,000 "no-show" students have been reported to ICE, allowing us to determine whether they have violated the law or pose a security risk. Most do not, of course, but the point is, we cannot rely on guesswork anymore.

Now, some may argue that we're asking for too much information. They may worry that it could intimidate some people and create a chilling effect on immigration.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

We're not here to play "gotcha." We would prefer to see the law obeyed rather than to punish violators. In fact, our compliance officers will be out in the field, helping foreign students and universities learn the rules. We've also invited experts from science and academia to help us speed up the visa approval process for foreign scholars and teachers who clearly pose no threat. We welcome students, visitors and business travelers.

Ladies and gentlemen, good information does not threaten immigration. Quite the contrary. The more certain we are about someone's status, the less likely we are to make a mistake that would jeopardize their status - or our safety.

Securing our borders often comes down to making a decision on the spot, using the best information at hand. The more we are able to identify people and assess them based on their individual traits, the less dependent we are on broad, general categories such as national origin. That makes the system fairer for everyone.


Last week, an al Qaeda leader wrote an e-mail promising a new "guerrilla war" against Saudi Arabia and the United States. "The list of assassinations, the raid teams and the martyr operation squads are ready," he wrote, "the caches of weapons, ammunition, explosives and bombs are plentiful -- and the authorities cannot uncover them."

One day later, an attack in Saudi Arabia killed 34 people, including eight Americans.

The war on terrorism will not end quickly. It will take a sustained national and international effort. But we are ready, not intimidated, and US VISIT will be an important tool. We now have an opportunity to learn from past failures. We must not miss this chance.

[In his campaign], President Bush said, "New Americans are not to be feared as strangers; they are to be welcomed as neighbors."

US VISIT will replace fear with knowledge, protecting Americans while keeping, to borrow again from Emma Lazarus, our "lamp lifted [high] beside the Golden Door."

Thank you.

Cite as AILA Doc. No. 03052010.