Administration Seeks Homeland Security Progress Despite Setbacks
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on June 1 awarded a contract to Accenture LLP for the management and expansion of its U.S. visitor-tracking program. The contract, worth up to $10 billion, is intended to enlarge the capacity of US-VISIT, an electronic tracking system for visitors entering and exiting the United States. (See the May, June, and October 2003, and January and April 2004 Policy Beats for more information on US-VISIT). Accenture will be responsible for expanding US-VISIT's ability to store biometric data such as digital photographs and fingerprints.
Some critics of the contract have questioned the decision to award the largest contract in DHS history to Accenture LLP because it is a subsidiary of Accenture Ltd., a Bermuda-incorporated consulting firm that has been accused of moving overseas to reduce its tax obligations. These concerns were part of a House of Representatives Appropriations Committee amendment, but the full House voted 221-182 to maintain Accenture's contract, in part to avoid delays in the US-VISIT expansion. However, the House action did retain a provision that bars future contracts with companies that incorporate outside of U.S. borders for tax purposes. Despite the controversy, Accenture has publicly committed to continuing its US-VISIT work.
Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services Eduardo Aguirre on June 17 announced his agency's revised plan for eliminating an unprecedented backlog of 3.7 million applications for citizenship, green cards, and work permits. The move came amid continuous calls for streamlined processing fueled by a January 2004 General Accounting Office report highlighting the growing backlog, now the largest in history. According to the USCIS announcement, goals for the revised plan include increased and more effective use of technology, revisions to processing regulations, and a 20 percent increase in productivity. Efforts to reduce the immigration benefits backlog were highlighted by President George W. Bush in 2001, and FY 2002 federal budget legislation effectively incorporated a $500 million commitment for a five-year effort to reduce application processing times to six months. However, the terrorist attacks of September 11 forced heightened scrutiny of immigrants' backgrounds, further stressing the immigration benefits system. Aguirre said that the new changes, including more timely background checks for all applicants, would allow his agency to meet the administration's 2007 goal of timely application processing despite the absence of additional funding. On average, individuals currently wait 22 months for a green card and 14 months for citizenship.
Several Department of Homeland Security (DHS) border enforcement initiatives suffer from problems ranging from overspending to understaffing, according to government sources and reports. The Arizona Border Control Initiative (ABC), a plan to control the entry of undocumented immigrants and decrease deaths along the Arizona-Sonora border, is over budget and understaffed, Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson told the press in late May. (See the April 2004 Policy Beat for more information on ABC). June 1 was the deadline for full implementation of ABC. Yet, according to press reports, less than half of the proposed border agents have arrived on site, and the planned unmanned aerial drones and expanded detention space for illegal immigrants have yet to become operational. As of this writing, no revised date has been set for the full implementation of the program.
A June 3 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report concluded that there are also inefficiencies in the DHS effort to prevent foreign visitors from overstaying their visas. GAO indicated that approximately 27 percent of unauthorized immigrants in the United States are visa overstayers. The agency identified several reasons, also discussed in previous GAO reports, why DHS is unable to properly track visitors leaving the country, including the presence of many untracked Mexican and Canadian visitors, and a flawed exit data collection system. DHS responded that it previously acknowledged and addressed these border enforcement concerns, and continues to do so, with several initiatives. Those programs include the US-VISIT program to track visitor entries and exits, and a new bilateral U.S.-Mexico policy to return migrants caught illegally crossing the Arizona border to their hometowns by airplane. Nevertheless, the GAO report indicates that despite DHS efforts, little progress has been made on preventing visa overstayers.
The deadline for citizens of Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries to begin presenting machine-readable biometric passports at U.S. ports-of-entry appears likely to be extended for at least one year, to October 26, 2005. (See May 2004 and October 2003 Policy Beats for related news). The prospective extension addresses March 2003 requests from Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge. It also reflects the inability of the 27 VWP countries, whose citizens are granted visa-free entry into the U.S. for up to 90 days, to meet the tight biometric passport requirements. In mid-June, the House voted to extend by one year the October 26, 2004 deadline allocated to these countries to implement interoperable biometric programs, which the U.S. hopes to have functioning by 2006. Unless the U.S. Senate approves the extension, all nationals from these countries will be required to get a visa before entering the U.S., increasing visa-processing demands by 70 percent and likely reducing the number of foreign visitors. Regardless of whether the proposed extension is granted, starting September 30, all visiting nationals from VWP countries will be fingerprinted and photographed at U.S. ports-of-entry.