INS reaches for high-tech silver bullet

Embarrassed by issuing visas to dead hijackers, the agency is struggling to prove it can reliably track anyone.

So far, America's embattled immigration agency has taken two steps toward reform since raising the ire of President Bush and others last week by mailing student-visa extensions for two dead Sept. 11 terrorists to a Florida flight school.

First, the Immigration and Naturalization Service reassigned four top officials. Second, it's proposing a new version of its old high-tech solution for tracking foreign students – an Internet-based system that keeps real-time tabs on them as they get their visas, step off the plane in the US, and register at school.

The reassignments – in an agency known for its bureaucratic ineptness – were a show of public penance for a hugely embarrassing incident. The impact of any restructuring is yet to be known.

But turning to technology is common practice for anotoriously low-tech, paper-driven agency. It's also instituting, for instance, a new EZ-pass system on the Canadian border.

And it raises a fundamental question: Can technology help track the country's 32 million annual foreign visitors – and save the beleaguered INS?

It does seem plausible. After all, Wal-Mart traces hundreds of millions of products from warehouse to check-out counter – and Wall Streetblastsbillions of dollars around the planet daily.

But current and former INS officials say technology is a complicated blessing.

It does help the agency balance between the two roles it has to play with foreign visitors: efficient, helpful host, and tough, skeptical law enforcer.

But technology can also get short-circuited by politics – for instance when university groups lobbied Congress to delay a previous foreign-student tracking system.

And there's the INS's spotty technology record. One 1999 Justice Department probe concluded the agency " ... continued to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on automation initiatives without being able to explain how the money was spent or what was accomplished."

CONSIDER the saga of the foreign-student tracking system the agency is now touting.

Originally called CIPRIS – the Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students – it was seen as a grand solution to the long-vexing problem of being able to track foreign students. During the hostage crisis in Iran in 1979, the INS caught flak for being unable to account for 9,000 of the 50,000 Iranian students in the US.

In 1997, the pilot computer data base was deemed a success.

But then the agency imposed a $95 fee on students, which sparked a lobbying campaign by foreign-student advocates, who said the program was expensive and unwieldy. The system sat in limbo until Sept. 11, 2001

Then, after several of the Sept. 11 terrorists used student visas, the idea was dusted off and revamped. Now called SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System), it uses the Internet to connect US embassy staff with border agents with academic registrars. Each inputs data on students, who are closely tracked.

But university groups still appear to be balking. "There continues to be some disagreement between schools and INS," says one agency official. But, he says, "We're not going to allow any unreasonable delays." Yet there's no deadline for the program to be required for all foreign students.

All in all, it's symptomatic of an agency that observers say is often whipsawed by the public, the president, and Congress. One day they want foreign visitors to have unfettered access to schools and tourist spots. The next, they practically want moment-by-moment accountings of visitors' movements. That's why the INS keeps turning to technology – hoping to balance the two. New programs include:

• The EZ-pass system on the Canadian border. A device mounted in the vehicle of prescreened travelers beams necessary information to border officials before the travelers arrive at the checkpoint, allowing for quick processing. It's being expanded after a successful pilot.

• A planned new entry-exit tracking system would trace all visitors at air, sea, and land ports. It's a mammoth undertaking – and observers think the official 2005 implementation date is too optimistic.

• The Mexican-border "laser visa" program uses holograms and other high-tech encryption to ensure reliable identification of visitors. Pre-screened travelers swipe their cards and gain quick access to the US. Millions of cards have been issued. But the INS has only a handful of card readers – so the system is rarely used.

Given the INS's history with technology, however, that story isn't unique. Last year, the Justice Department reviewed the INS's entry-exit tracking system and found that despite having spent $31.2 million between 1996 to 2000, the INS "does not have clear evidence that the system meets its intended goals." The agency expects to spend $57 million more on the project between 2001 and 2005.

Observers say the fundamental problem is a lack of a grander technology vision. Instead, a band-aid approach dictates that a new computer system be developed each time a problem arises. That leads to myriad networks that can't talk to each other – let alone to systems of other agencies.

Some are confident in the agency's employees and their ability to deal with the vexing border issues.

"The good news is that they can pull this off," says Mr. Ferro. But he cautions against plans – including by President Bush – to split the agency in two. "There continues to be some dis"All restructuring is going to do is buy three more years for excuses," he says, adding, "The best changes are going to take a while."

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