By Abraham Mahshie
Karla Ramirez, a Mexican national, underwent an extensive background check and fingerprinting in order to be declared safe by the United States government. Yet, under the proposed US-VISIT program, Ramirez, who since 1999 has used her laser visa to cross the U.S. border, may now be interrogated, fingerprinted, photographed, and turned away at the border on her way to visit family in San Antonio.
"Immigration are very tough people, they treat you poorly and they don't care if they don't give me permission or if I don't come back," says Ramirez, a Monterrey native.
Under the direction of the Department of Homeland Security, the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology ostensibly is designed to stop terrorists before they enter the country. However, the system, which has additional security measures at the border, has yet to catch a terrorist. Other uncertainties about the program - including manpower, technology, and funding - coupled with its effects on the U.S. economy, are making business owners and Mexican nationals uneasy. Proposed new restrictions on laser visa holders - foreigners deemed "safe" who are allowed to pass checkpoints more quickly - could further block the flow of tourists and business.
In the past, foreigners entering the U.S. only needed to show their passports and visas to customs officers at the border. Under US-VISIT, all foreigners, except Canadians, some high-level diplomats, children under 14, and adults over 79 must have a digital photo taken and their fingerprints scanned to verify their identity against their passports and visas. Ironically, in 1999, Ahmed Ressem crossed into Washington state with a trunk full of explosives and at least five of the 19 terrorists involved in 9-11 crossed the U.S. border in Canada, not Mexico.
By the end of the year, foreigners entering the U.S. at the top 50 points of entry, including Laredo, Eagle Pass, and Del Rio, will be required to undergo these additional steps. And for the first time, they will also be required to "check out" when leaving the country to verify that they complied with their visa stipulation.
Even Mexican nationals holding laser visas who don't check out on time - within 72 hours - will violate their visas and could be barred from returning to the U.S.
Last year, political pressure from the South Texas business community, which is largely dependent on retail and tourist dollars from Mexico, prompted President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox to ease the rules on laser visa holders. Under US-VISIT, they would have been required to undergo redundant checks at the border despite the extensive vetting already necessary to obtain laser visa cards. This agreement hasn't been made permanent or been put in writing.
Twenty-thousand visitors to the U.S. volunteered to participate in a US-VISIT test at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport last fall, prior to the program's requirement to be implemented in all airports on December 31. According to the US-VISIT website, the additional security procedures added an average of 15 seconds and discovered visa fraud and FBI criminal database matches for several potential visitors.
"Ten to 15 seconds is realistic and has been shown to work at the airport and for pedestrians, but for crosses in automobiles where 80-90 percent cross by car with several people in the car, where are the logistics?" explains Suad Ghaddar, a research associate at UT-Pan American, who suggests that the adjustment phase will have a serious economic impact on a city like Laredo, where 700,000 border crossings occur each month, the second highest number of border crossings in the U.S.
"Airports are a totally different dynamic," explains Blake Hastings of the Free Trade Alliance, who supports legislation proposed by Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) to allow laser visa holders to stay six months, like Canadian visitors. Blake also advocates lifting the restriction to stay within 25 miles of the border. "What is working at the airport is not any barometer of what can work at the border."
According to a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office released this month, existing infrastructure at the borders is inadequate even to support the current number of foreigners entering the U.S. Congress' two years' worth of appropriations - more than $700 million - are nowhere near the estimated $10 billion researchers say is necessary to realize the program's needs and goals.
Business advocates argue that US-VISIT hurts the economies of border states such as Texas and California. About 360 million Mexican visitors cross U.S. borders each year, spending an estimated $1.4 billion in the Rio Grande Valley alone. Yet, surveys of those crossing the border illustrate that US-VISIT raises fears in Mexican nationals that they will be turned away or unable to return to the U.S. if they leave.
"After NAFTA, US-VISIT is the most important issue that effects our economy," notes Schwebel. "This initiative is one that can eliminate all the benefits of NAFTA."
According to a recent study by the Center for Border Economic Studies at the University of Texas-Pan American, an estimated 41,000 jobs in Hidalgo and Cameron counties are reliant on Mexican nationals, about 14 percent of those counties' economies.
In San Antonio, purchases by Mexican nationals make up 32-34 percent of the total sales at North Star and Rivercenter Malls, according to figures from the state comptroller's office. San Antonio alone benefitted from for $170 million, or 25 percent of all retail sales to Mexican nationals last year. In San Antonio, Mexican nationals also own 40,000 homes in the area and pay property taxes, which funds Texas school districts.
"It's hurting our economy," notes Jennifer Martinez of the San Antonio Free Trade Alliance. "Why would somebody risk getting caught to shop at stores that they don't have or do a business deal based in San Antonio? It's not worth the risk; instead they're looking for alternatives closer to the border or in another country."
The deadline to install US-VISIT security equipment and software at the border is October 26; yet the Department of Homeland Security has yet to name the company that will provide this technology. The uncertainty and confusion about US-VISIT coupled with fears of "getting caught" affects nearly 8 million Mexicans who hold laser visa cards and cross the border to shop, visit family, or conduct business.
"We are not opposed to US-VISIT in principle," explains Hastings. "We are concerned that if it is not properly implemented at the border crossings it could be very detrimental to our economy." •