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Homeland Security

10 January 2006

World Travel Is Safer with US-VISIT, Security Official Says

Homeland Security plans more steps to boost travel, and safety

By Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – After two years implementing new border entry policies and procedures, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reports that further measures still are ahead as the agency strives to smooth and speed the process for legitimate travel and “stop the bad guys.”

The two-year-old US-VISIT (United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) program is devoted to “keeping America’s doors open and our nation secure,” according to the program’s motto.

Incorporating biometric entry procedures at border entry points was a key goal when the program began in January 2004. U.S. procedures now require an individual to undergo a digital finger scan upon entering the United States. (See related article.)

US-VISIT Director James Williams says one significant success is that the program has not caused the disruption that critics anticipated.

“There was a lot of fear and paranoia about US-VISIT,” he said at a Washington briefing January 10, “in terms of how it might increase processing times at the borders. In fact, it has not.

“At airports and seaports, we have slightly decreased processing time,” Williams said. “At our land ports of entry, we have in some cases significantly reduced the processing time, in some cases, from 10 to 11 minutes, down to two or three minutes.”

US-VISIT has processed more than 44 million visitors in its two years. Border officials have plucked 970 individuals from that river of travelers because enhanced security procedures identified them as criminals, drug traffickers or immigration violators.

Williams said DHS, the State Department and other law enforcement agencies involved in ensuring border security now are working to incorporate more new technologies into the border approval process in hopes of further facilitating the process for the 21st century.

By October, DHS will require that some visitors entering the United States have an e-passport – a document provided by countries of origin that incorporates an integrated computer chip that stores biographic information in addition to information about the traveler printed on the document.

Nations that participate in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) are being asked to upgrade their travel documents in this way to insure their travelers retain the privilege of foregoing a visa application in U.S. travel.  (See related article.)

The VWP enables citizens of 27 countries to visit the United States for tourism or business for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa.  Visitors from these countries are considered low risks for attempting to settle illegally in the United States because of prosperous, stable conditions and commitments in their home countries. 

“We are very appreciative of the work that the 27 visa waiver countries are undertaking,” Williams said. “They also believe that this will enhance security and they’re working very diligently to meet that date.”

U.S. HELPING OTHER NATIONS IRON OUT NEW SYSTEM

Williams said DHS has taken a number of steps to help other nations properly develop the new e-passport, including mock port-of-entry exercises to test new document readers that will equip each entry station to scan the microchip contained in the passports.

“We are trying to work with the rest of the world to enhance security and to improve immigration-border management around the world,” Williams said. “You do that through harmonizing around standards, technology and business processes and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”

Another new standard in the planning stage will require visitors to undergo a digital scan on 10 fingerprints rather than on only two.

Williams said this is necessary to avoiding confusing an innocent person’s prints with those of someone on the criminal watch list. Obtaining more data from each individual will help prevent the misidentification of innocent people.

In the years ahead, the United States also will implement new standards for entry at its land borders with Canada and Mexico, some of the nation’s busiest border points.

Those forthcoming policy changes are being viewed with some skepticism by people who frequently make those crossings, but Williams said the changes will be designed to hasten the movement of long lines of vehicles that back up on the borders.

“We’re looking at how we can leverage 21st century technology and business processes,” he said, “and then transform the borders to meet not only our national security [concerns] but our joint economic and prosperity needs.”

A transcript of the briefing is available on the State Department Foreign Press Center Web site. More information on the US-VISIT program is available on the Homeland Security Web site.

For additional information on U.S. policies, see Visas and Passports.

(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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