Comprehensive Visitor Tracking Program Moves Forward
A new entry/exit system being developed to identify visitors to the United States will include many new inspectors, biometric equipment, and computer links to government databases of criminal and terrorist suspects. Under Secretary of Border and Transportation Asa Hutchinson provided details about the new program, the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indictor Technology (US-VISIT), at a policy address on May 19. In addition to presenting a general overview of the program as a comprehensive entry/exit system (see May 1, 2003 Policy Beat), Hutchinson announced the intention to hire 1,700 new inspectors and "hundreds" of Border Patrol Agents, as well as plans to create an Office of Compliance to manage all information about visas and visa holders. By the end of 2003, the new system will require all those visiting the U.S. with visas to have their fingerprints and photographs scanned at air and sea ports, while land ports-of-entry will be integrated into the system at a future date. Other biometric identifiers such as facial recognition and iris scans may be used in the future, and all information will be checked against databases of criminal and terrorist suspects. The program, mandated by Congress to be fully implemented by 2006, aims to establish a flexible and comprehensive automated entry/exit system that works closely with consular offices abroad to collect timely and accurate information about travelers. While favoring the program, many business and advocacy groups are concerned that significant delays, both in visa issuance and at ports-of-entry, will dramatically decrease flows of foreign visitors, students, and business travelers, hindering U.S. economic interests. From a national security standpoint, they have voiced fears that insufficient funding and relatively tight implementation deadlines may result in a poorly managed and ultimately faulty entry/exit system.
A group of 74 Somali Bantus have arrived in the United States, where they are destined for resettlement in various cities. The new arrivals from the war-torn African nation are the first of a total of 11,800 Somali Bantu refugees who will be accepted for resettlement over the course of the next three years. They will be resettled in some 50 cities and towns, making the program one of the biggest resettlement operations to take place in the Western hemisphere in recent years. Somali Bantus, rural farmers and descendents of slaves, are a persecuted minority in their home country, and thousands have been living in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp since Somalia's 1992 civil war. These refugees, most of whom are illiterate, will receive assistance from U.S. resettlement agencies, which will help provide such basic needs as adequate housing, school, language, employment, and health services. After one year of living in the U.S., refugees can apply to adjust their status to permanent residency (meaning the acquisition of a "green card") and eventually become eligible for citizenship. The next group of Somali Bantu refugees, approximately 150 individuals, is expected to arrive in mid-June.
The June 4 deadline is rapidly approaching for more than 300,000 undocumented immigrants to file for permanent residency under the Legal Immigration and Family Equity (LIFE) Act. In addition to meeting other requirements, qualifying immigrants must have taken part in any of three class-action lawsuits resulting from the 1986 legalization program for undocumented immigrants. All three lawsuits addressed cases in which immigrants who qualified for legalization were discouraged from applying or had their applications mistakenly denied. The former Immigration and Naturalization Service announced a public outreach campaign in late January 2003 to encourage participation by those eligible to apply for legal status under the LIFE Act. At that time, it was estimated that more than 200,000 immigrants were eligible to apply. However, as of May 1, 2003, Bureau of Customs and Immigration Services officials estimated that a total of 300,000 permanent resident applications had been approved, far surpassing earlier estimates.
Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge has extended the temporary protected status (TPS) of Hondurans and Nicaraguans by 18 months, stating that neither country is capable of managing the return of their nationals. Approximately 87,000 Hondurans and 6,000 Nicaraguans currently hold TPS. The two countries' nationals were granted TPS on January 5, 1999 due to severe flooding and mudslides caused by Hurricane Mitch, and have been granted extensions ever since. TPS provides exceptional protection from deportation to qualifying and registered foreign nationals from designated countries stricken by environmental disasters, civil unrest, or other extraordinary conditions. In addition, TPS holders are granted work authorization. As factors contributing to his decision, Ridge cited a lack of necessary stability and infrastructure in either country, recent droughts in the region, and additional hardship caused by Hurricane Michelle in 2001. Previously, the Attorney General at the Department of Justice had authority over TPS designation and assessment. All related functions have since been transferred to the Department of Homeland Security.
The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will be reorganized under a plan that will take effect June 9, according to the bureau's assistant secretary, Michael Garcia. On May 16, Garcia announced that the bureau's headquarters would establish a structure of five distinct operational divisions, all reporting directly to him. The five planned divisions are Investigations, Detention & Removal, Intelligence, Air & Marine Interdiction, and Federal Protective Service. At the field level, the most significant change will be the creation of a "Special Agents in Charge" structure for bureau investigations. Each agent will be responsible for managing investigative operations for a particular geographic area of the United States.