The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently released results of their investigation into the US-VISIT program.  US-VISIT was created after 9/11 to track noncitizens’ entries into and exits from the U.S. to identify national security threats, individuals entering with fraudulent identities, and visa overstays.  Through US-VISIT, fingerprints and digital photographs are taken of all noncitizens entering the U.S. and matched to biographical information.  The exit portion of US-VISIT has never been fully implemented.

The OIG detected severe problems with US-VISIT’s data integrity and found 825,000 instances where the same fingerprints were linked to different biographical data, such as name and date of birth.  Most of these errors were the result of incorrect data entry.  For example:

  • One individual’s name was spelled 17 different ways over the course of 5 years.
  • One individual’s first, middle, and last names were recorded in different combinations.
  • Another individual had 14 different combinations of months, days, and years for the birth date recorded.
  • In another case, the same fingerprints were mistakenly used when processing seven different individuals who entered the U.S. over the course of a few hours.
  • Nearly 400,000 records for women had different last names attached to the same first name, date of birth, and fingerprints because the women had likely changed their names when they were married or divorced.

The OIG concluded that these data errors make it difficult for US-VISIT to achieve its goal of identifying individuals who are trying to enter the U.S. fraudulently using different names or birth dates.

The error-riddled US-Visit database is cause for alarm as it is likely to create problems for numerous other government agencies.  For example, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services uses it to establish and verify the identities of people applying for immigration benefits.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) uses US-VISIT data to identify visa overstays.  And information collected by US-VISIT is a key element of databases checked by Secure Communities.  Errors in US-VISIT data means that people could have difficulties when they apply for immigration benefits, or they could be incorrectly flagged by ICE when they are arrested by the police and run through Secure Communities.  While some errors may be easily remedied, some people – including US citizens – have encountered tremendous obstacles dealing with errors in immigration databases and trying to prove who they really are and avoid detention or even deportation.

The OIG report and recommendations do not take the broad impact of data entry errors into account, and there is apparently no plan to remedy these human errors.  Because of the severe harm that can be caused by database errors, it is important that DHS take serious and immediate action to ensure the integrity of US-VISIT data.

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