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Homeland Security

07 January 2004

New Entry Procedures for Visitors to U.S. Hailed as Success

Migration Policy Institute January 6 forum on US-VISIT

By Anthony Kujawa
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials hailed new immigration procedures requiring most foreign visitors traveling to the United States on visas to have two fingers scanned by an inkless device and a digital photograph taken upon entry.

Speaking at a Migration Policy Institute forum January 6 in Washington, one day after the entry procedures of US-VISIT (United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) took effect at 115 airports and 14 cruise ship terminals, DHS Director for US-VISIT James Williams said "Yesterday was a great beginning for this program," and he called the procedures an "overwhelming success."

The goal of US-VISIT, said Williams, is to enhance the security of the United States while expediting legitimate travel and trade. Williams said these two goals of the program are not mutually exclusive or conflicting. "We can achieve both at the same time," he said.

Exit procedures of US-VISIT will be phased in at air and seaports later in 2004. According to DHS, U.S. law requires that an automated entry/exit system also be in operation at the 50 busiest U.S. land border points by December 31, 2004. All ports of entry are to be using the entrance/exit procedures by December 31, 2005.

When fully operational, US-VISIT will provide the capability to verify the identity of incoming visitors, record the entry and exit of non-U.S. citizens into and out of the United States, and confirm compliance with visa and immigration policies, officials say.

DHS Deputy Director for US-VISIT Robert Mocny said the program "applies universally to every citizen from any country coming to the United States on a visa." All visitors with nonimmigrant visas between the ages of 14 and 79 are subject to the procedures, with exceptions only made for specific classes of diplomats.

Officials said the program will be conducted in a manner that safeguards the personal privacy of visitors, and data obtained will be handled in compliance with the U.S. privacy act, being securely stored as part of the visitor's travel record and made available only to authorized officials and selected law enforcement agencies responsible for ensuring the safety and security of U.S. citizens and foreign visitors.

Also speaking at the forum, Richard Webster of the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) said his organization supports US-VISIT, but he expressed concern about possible delays and inconveniences with the program. Webster cited a lack of training for inspectors using the new technologies, a lack of public outreach, and ambiguity regarding enforcement of U.S. laws for travelers who overstay their visa as areas of particular concern.

"The traveling public internationally is confused, they are concerned," said Webster.

But officials say the procedures add about 15 seconds to inspection processing time per passenger. Discussing the concern that the United States has not done enough public outreach on the program, DHS's Williams noted that there have been numerous press briefings as well as digital video conferences with foreign media on the program, but he added "we agree with that concern, you can never do enough [public outreach]."

In response to questions on the status of the National Security Entry-Exit System (NSEERS), a separate program implemented September 11, 2002, with primary goals to prevent terrorists and known criminals from entering the United States, identify terrorists already in the country and develop a capacity to enforce visa overstays, DHS says US-VISIT's entry and exit procedures will eventually replace the more detailed registration requirements of the NSEERS program.

When initially implemented, NSEERS consisted of three components -- Port-of-Entry (POE) Registration, Special Registration and Exit/Departure Controls -- but DHS suspended the special registration component of the program effective December 2, 2003.

NSEERS registration is still required at ports of entry and exit for certain individuals, and POE immigration officers have the discretion, based on national security criteria and intelligence reports, to refer an individual from any country to a more detailed secondary inspection.

Visitors who may be required to register under the NSEERS program will be notified directly by an immigration officer at the primary inspection station in the airport, according to Shonnie Lyon, Director of Implementation Management for US-VISIT, in a separate interview. Currently, he said, a visitor will either "fall under the US-VISIT process or NSEERS. It will not be both."

Lyon called the NSEERS registration process a "more intrusive" interview process, which takes about 20 minutes. NSEERS has been widely criticized as discriminatory because of its use of nationality-based criteria in determining who is required to register.

Commenting on how US-VISIT when fully implemented will subsume NSEERS, DHS's Mocny said, there is a "definite desire" within the Bush administration to "lean ourselves away from that [the NSEERS program] and make US-VISIT the appropriate place where people are registered."

When the US-VISIT program is completely deployed with entry and exit procedures fully operational "we will be able to just make NSEERS go away," said Mocny.

In response to a question on "profiling" of certain national or ethnic groups at points of entry at a separate briefing on US-VISIT, DHS Under Secretary Asa Hutchinson said that US-VISIT "applies equally across the board" to visa holders who come to the United States, regardless of nationality.

He explained that US-VISIT is designed to avoid reliance upon classification of "broad categories" of people. With the ability to confirm identity biometrically, he said, US-VISIT will facilitate the entry and exit of travelers to the United States and reduce the number of referrals to secondary inspection. If a traveler's name is similar to a name on a terrorist "watch list," for example, Hutchinson said that with US-VISIT's capability to confirm identity it would not be necessary to refer the traveler for secondary examination.

"This is the first step, it is a start, we have a way to go until can build an effective border management process that does allow us to continue our path of accomplishing the goals of enhancing national security and facilitating legitimate trade and travel," said Williams.

"I hope our legacy will be after our tenure that the nation is better off from a national security and economic security standpoint," he said.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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