ABB Letter to Secretary Powell and Secretary Ridge on Resource Deficiency, Visa Backlog and the US VISIT System

June 2, 2003

Dear Secretary Powell and Secretary Ridge:
As the two Secretaries responsible for U.S. visa policy and other aspects of border security, the Americans for Better Borders (ABB) coalition would like to register our strong concern about recent policy decisions we believe will negatively impact the flow of cross-border commerce and travel, and severely harm our nation’s economy.
The goal of ABB is to unite regional business organizations and a wide array of companies and national trade associations representing manufacturing, hospitality, tourism, transportation, recreation, and other industry sectors to work to ensure the efficient flow of goods and people across our borders while addressing national security concerns.

Over the past two years, our concept of border security has expanded from securing lines on the map to securing entire transportation networks – from beginning to end.  The increasing sophistication of our transportation networks and efforts to “push the borders out” have the potential to improve efficiency and security.  However, this has also increased the number of potential bottlenecks where travel and commerce can break down.  We in the private sector must now concern ourselves with the many avenues through which the modern border has been pushed out and through which our nation’s commerce and customers will flow.

Over the past eighteen months, ABB and others in the private sector have supported increased security but pressed all parts of the federal government to also elevate border security in a manner that balances increased security with increased facilitation.  We have heard the message of “balance” repeated by many government officials.  Now we call on the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Homeland Security to turn rhetoric into action and pursue policies that realistically improve commerce and traveler facilitation along with enhanced security.
ABB, as the principal private sector coalition involved in the enactment of legislation that mandated the creation of the US VISIT system, is especially concerned that the new US VISIT system will be implemented before it is thoroughly vetted, or provided with adequate resources to ensure that its implementation will not result in drastic negative impacts at our ports-of-entry. Further, ABB is alarmed at the recent State Department policy that mandates a doubling or tripling of personal interviews for non-immigrant visa applicants, but provides no additional resources, including personnel, technology, or facilities, for U.S. consulates to undertake these new requirements.
While we may not be in a position to determine whether or not either of these programs will provide marked increases in security given their potential costs, we are gravely concerned that this analysis has not been conducted.  We strongly believe that any new programs should be implemented on a risk-management basis – that is, programs should attempt foremost to identify those travelers that do not present a threat, and speed their entry, allowing Federal resources and additional security to be focused on those who are unknown or present a higher risk.  When faced with limited resources and the high potential costs both to implement such comprehensive programs as US VISIT and the interview requirement, and the potential cost to the economy of delays and backlogs due to these programs, this approach makes the most sense.
ABB urges the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security to strongly consider all of the costs of the US VISIT program and the new interview rules and provide adequate resources to ensure these programs are both effectively identifying the true risks and ensuring that legitimate low-risk travel and commerce are facilitated.  We would suggest that a phased-in approach to interviews, first targeting those that initial security checks identify as unknown, questionable or high-risk, be undertaken. And ABB believes the initial US VISIT implementation will impede facilitation with little security benefits if fingerprint scanning is done at U.S. ports-of-entry and not in overseas consular offices so that potential threats can be identified and interdicted while still overseas.
ABB calls on the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to take immediate action to rectify the glaring resource deficiencies associated with these programs.  We acknowledge the intense pressure that has been placed on your Departments to act on border security.  Nonetheless, with thousands of companies and millions of jobs depending on the efficient flow of travel and commerce, it is unreasonable to implement any policy without having sufficient numbers of trained personnel, equipment, and a pro-active communications campaign which directly reaches our trade partners and prospective visitors.  America’s customers have other choices, and they will choose our competitors over us if they believe these policies will impede the flow of goods and people to the U.S.
Americans for Better Borders