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Homeland Security

17 January 2006

United States To Use Better Technology for Security, Hospitality

Officials unveil new initiatives to ensure secure borders, open doors

By Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – Two top U.S. officials January 17 presented a broad strategy for ensuring security at the nation’s borders and at the same time welcoming travelers, students and businesspeople into the United States.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff brought together an audience of business people, educators and other interested parties to explain a three-part strategy designed to maintain the right balance between strong security and smooth travel in the information age.

“We seek to use new information technology to renew America’s welcome,” said Rice, “making it as easy as possible for foreign visitors to travel to the United States and to do so securely and safely.” (See related fact sheet.)

Creating more sophisticated travel documents and conducting smarter border screening are two other major elements of the plan announced at U.S. State Department headquarters in Washington.

The two agencies are working to develop the “model airport,” to institute new procedures for smoothly ushering foreign visitors into the country. Two pilot efforts will begin this year in Houston, Texas, and at Virginia’s Dulles Airport, outside Washington.

Foreign travelers take their first steps toward the United States with the visa application process in their own countries, and Rice said steps are being taken to facilitate that process as well. In 2006 an experiment will begin in which State Department consular officers will conduct required interviews with visa applicants using digital videoconferencing technology to save the applicant a trip to the consulate or embassy.

“If we can do this successfully,” Rice said, “this process might make life dramatically easier for foreign citizens who must travel great distances to be interviewed in person.”

SECURE BORDERS, OPEN DOORS IN THE INFORMATION AGE

The State Department plans to use technology to expedite the visa application process by introducing an online process for business travelers to file visa applications and make appointments for interviews.

Problems with data sharing among the various U.S. government agencies that bear responsibility for movement of visitors at the borders are acknowledged to have slowed and complicated the visa process. The Rice-Chertoff plan seeks to eliminate that technical barrier with creation of a unified architecture of information, according to the homeland security secretary.

The new system will require the applicant to supply information to U.S. agencies only once, while allowing border officials access to electronic files on travelers coming into the United States.

“We will have the opportunity to transform our border management,” said Chertoff, “decreasing wait times at points of entry, and allowing us to focus our resources on that minority of people who pose a threat.”

The United States will also transition to an e-passport by 2007, a travel document carrying a computer chip, which will bear biometric and biographic information on the bearer. Officials say this document will strengthen security for the entire international traveling public by ensuring the document is authentic and that the person carrying the passport is the actual person to whom it was issued.

SOME IMPROVEMENTS ALREADY MADE

The officials predicted that these innovations will work to make entry to the United States more efficient and convenient than ever before, but added that significant improvements already have been made. 

Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks focused new scrutiny on U.S. border-security procedures, the State Department has made significant strides in eliminating obsolete visa systems and in improving procedures and processing times. Foreign citizens’ waiting times for visas have been reduced from months to days in many cases, but Rice called those efforts only a beginning.

After some drop off in the number of business and academic travelers to the United States in the first year after the attacks, Rice said that the number of international visitors is increasing.  The United States welcomed 46 million foreign travelers in 2005, up 12 percent from 2004 in what Rice described as the greatest one-year increase in a decade.

The number of students receiving visas to study in the United States increased 9 percent in 2005 over 2004 levels, according to the secretary of state.

Homeland Security has implemented the US-VISIT (United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) program at ports of entry, striving for a system that allows more thorough identification of visitors in a way that does not inconvenience travelers or slow the movement through points of entry.  DHS has now put that system in place at 115 seaports and 14 seaports, documenting the entry of more than 44 million visitors.

US-VISIT officials say the program has reduced the processing time for a visitor to pass through the port of entry by as much as nine minutes. Travelers find the process unobtrusive, according to agency surveys.  (See related article.)

In the screening of those millions of visitors, DHS has also stopped 970 people at the borders because of their appearance on law enforcement watch lists as suspected terrorists, fugitives, or previous immigration violators.

A transcript of Rice’s remarks is available on the State Department Web site.

For additional information, see Visas and Passports, as well as the US-VISIT Web page on the Homeland Security Web site.

(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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