Border Security Equipment Seldom Used
The face- and fingerprint-matching technology that has been touted over the past decade as a sophisticated new way to stop terrorists and illegal immigrants from entering the country through Mexico has one major drawback: U.S. border inspectors almost never use it.
In fact, the necessary equipment is not even installed in vehicle lanes along the border. Government officials told the Associated Press that checking more people would create too big a backup at the border, where hours-long traffic jams are already common. Some members of Congress who voted for the system in 1996 are complaining they were misled. They said the intent was to use biometrics — or a person’s unique physical traits — to screen everyone.
“Congress would not have gone to the trouble of requiring biometric features on the border crossing card if it knew the administration would not require that those features be read by scanners,” says Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who wrote the legislation.
The U.S. government has spent tens of millions of dollars issuing visa cards digitally embedded with the holder’s photo and fingerprints.
Holders of the cards come across the border millions of times each year. But on average, in only about 2 percent of those cases are the cardholders screened with the biometric technology to verify their identities and check law-enforcement records, says Paul Morris, Customs and Border Protection’s executive director of admissibility requirements and migration control.
The checks are done consistently only on the small portion of cardholders who seek permission to travel beyond the border region.
“As the technology becomes available, we can expand the current level of biometric matching,” Morris tells the Associated Press. “There is not a technology solution currently available that will not cause delays that are well beyond the acceptable levels.”
Beginning in 1998, the high-tech “laser visas” have been issued to 9.1 million Mexicans for short visits to the U.S. The laser visas, which look like driver’s licenses, have a 1.4-in. optical memory stripe holding personal information such as name, gender and birth date. The stripe also stores the owner’s digitized facial photo and two fingerprints.
Cardholders coming across the border may be asked to press their fingers against a glass and pose for a photo, while their card pulls up their biometric file — a process that takes an extra 30 seconds or so per person. The photo and fingerprints can also be instantly checked against criminal and terrorist watch lists.
Sandra Raynes, consular officer at the U.S. consulate in Tijuana, says, “If they were to check everyone, you’d have lines all the way down to Cabo San Lucas,” which is about 1,100 miles south of San Diego.
U.S. officials say biometrics are only part of its effort to stem illegal crossings. An inspector’s wits and agency intelligence are also key, they say.
The laser visas entitle Mexicans to travel 25 miles from the border — slightly farther in Arizona — for 30 days. Cardholders can also apply for a permit to travel anywhere in the U.S. for up to six months.
Border inspectors routinely swipe the laser visas through a machine to retrieve the basic personal information and to call up a photo. But, with some exceptions, the inspectors use the facial- and fingerprint-matching technology only for those applying at the border for one of the six-month permits, Morris says.
That practice means that most of those who are checked are not selected at random; they know they are going to be scanned when they come across.
The government contract for laser visas was worth $28.6 million from 2000 to 2006, and Homeland security awarded a five-year renewal in March to General Dynamics Corp. worth $28.5 million, according to Homeland security.