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Secretary Ridge Seeks to Extend Deadline for Biometric Passports

Homeland Security chief reviews Visa Waiver Program, US-VISIT

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge urged Congress to extend the biometric passport deadline for 27 countries that are America's "closest allies and economic partners" so that visitors from those countries can continue to enter the United States without a visa.

He added that security would be maintained by including those visitors in the US-VISIT program.

Ridge joined Secretary of State Colin Powell on April 21 in making the case before the House Judiciary Committee that the 27 countries -- which are under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) - will not be able to meet an October 26, 2004, deadline for having machine-readable passports with biometric indicators, such as digital finger scans or photographs.

Currently, visitors from VWP countries -- such as Britain, France, Germany and Japan -- do not need a visa to enter the United States. However, after October 26, they will need a visa unless they have a biometric passport. Ridge and Powell are requesting that the passport deadline be extended to November 30, 2006.

A deadline extension would permit the VWP countries to meet the technical challenges of issuing passports containing biometric data, said Ridge, "and processing Visa Waiver Program travelers through US-VISIT will help . . . achieve our security objectives."

Under US-VISIT procedures, biometrics such as finger scans enable the Department of Homeland Security to check the identity of persons entering the United States against information on their visa or passport and against security watchlists. USVISIT entry procedures are operational at some 115 airports and 14 seaports, and by the end of 2004, will be in operation at 50 land ports of entry, Ridge said. 

He also said that failure to extend the deadline "will place a great burden on our consulates" because thousands of people from VWP countries will need visas, and it could also have "significant negative implications on tourism, travel and commerce."

Despite the new security environment, the Department of Homeland Security is "working with Secretary Powell to get the word out that the United States remains an open and welcoming nation to those who wish to live, work or study here," Ridge said.

Following is Secretary Ridge's testimony as prepared for delivery:

U.S. Department of Homeland Security
[Washington, D.C.]
April 21, 2004

ORAL TESTIMONY OF SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY TOM RIDGE BEFORE THE HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE

(Prepared for delivery)

Chairman Sensenbrenner, Ranking Member Conyers and other distinguished Members:  I am honored and pleased to appear before the Committee to discuss the Department of Homeland Security's request of the Congress to extend the deadlines of two sections of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002.

These sections relate to the production of International Civil Aviation Organization or ICAO-compliant biometric passports and the deployment of equipment and software to read them.

We recommend that the present October 26th, 2004, deadline be extended to November 30th, 2006.  We join with Secretary Powell and the Department of State in supporting this change.  That we are testifying together is symbolic of our strong partnership.  In the brief year since the Department of Homeland Security was created, we have worked together to make our country safer and more secure for American citizens and non-citizens alike.

Our policies have been designed to keep our borders closed to terrorists but open to legitimate, law-abiding visitors.  They deserve to travel on secure airlines and vessels; to be processed efficiently through our ports and border crossings; and to have their privacy respected and protected from abuse.  And once here, they deserve to live in safety -- not in fear of terrorists, criminals and fugitives from the law.  That is the charge of our open, welcoming nation -- a champion of freedom at home and abroad.  I believe the changes we favor will help us preserve those freedoms and protect all individuals from harm.

THE VISA WAIVER PROGRAM

Currently, 27 nations are members of the Visa Waiver Program, or VWP.  Under the program, citizens of participating countries are allowed to travel to the United States for tourism or business for 90 days or less without obtaining a visa.

The policy encourages travel, trade and student exchanges between the United States and our allies.  However, one unintended consequence of the policy is a potentially significant gap in security as those wishing to avoid visa security checks conducted at U.S. consulates abroad attempt to take advantage of the program.

One of the responsibilities of the Department of Homeland Security is to determine whether the continued participation of a particular nation in the VWP poses a threat to the national security or law enforcement interests of the United States, and therefore should be ended.

The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act requires that beginning on October 26th, 2004, Visa Waiver Program countries have a program in place to issue their nationals machine-readable passports.  They must be tamper-resistant and incorporate biometric and document authentication identifiers that comply with ICAO standards.

The law also requires that visitors coming to the United States under the VWP present these new biometric and machine-readable passports if they were issued on or after that date.  VWP travelers with non-biometric passports issued after 10-26-04 will need a visa to enter the United States.

EXTENSION OF THE DEADLINE

We have learned that while most Visa Waiver Program countries will be able to certify that they have a program in place to issue biometric passports by the October 26th deadline, few, if any, of these countries will actually be able to produce biometric passports by that date.

Under the current deadline, millions of visitors from Visa Waiver Program countries who do not have ICAO-compliant passports will have to obtain visas prior to traveling to the United States.

As my colleague Secretary Powell has indicated, this sweeping change will place a great burden on our consulates and have significant negative implications on tourism, travel and commerce.  So relief is critical.  Secretary Powell and I are extremely encouraged by the progress that has already been made by Visa Waiver Program countries to meet the emerging ICAO standards.  We will continue to work with them to help them meet the mandatory deadlines.  It must be noted that the reason these countries cannot meet the October 26th deadline is not a lack of will or commitment, but rather challenging scientific and technical issues.

For those same technical reasons, the Department of Homeland Security is not currently in a position to acquire and deploy equipment and software to biometrically compare and authenticate those documents.  Also, as Secretary Powell has noted, adhering to the original deadline also would likely prevent us from creating a system that is interoperable for all nations.  Like the foundation of a house, interoperability must be built into the system from the very beginning.  To do otherwise would prove extremely expensive, time-consuming and difficult.

Acknowledging the current limited state of technology and the potential for harm to our relations with our closest allies, the Department, as stated earlier, requests that the October 26th, 2004, deadline under the relevant sections of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act be extended to November 30th, 2006.

THE US-VISIT PROGRAM

Despite these challenges, we have identified an interim solution that we believe will allow us to improve the nation's security and the integrity of the Visa Waiver Program.  This involves enrolling Visa Waiver Program travelers in the US-VISIT system, beginning this fall.

US-VISIT represents the greatest single advance in border technology in three decades.  The Department has established US-VISIT to:

Enhance the safety of our citizens and visitors;

Facilitate legitimate travel and trade;

Ensure the integrity of our immigration system; and

Protect the privacy of travelers to the United States.

US-VISIT represents a continuum of security measures that uses biometrics as a key element.  Biometrics such as digital, inkless fingerscans and digital photographs enable the Department to determine whether the person applying for entry to the United States is the same person who was issued the visa by State.  Both State and our Department use biometric and biographic data to check against appropriate "lookout" data.

The Department deployed the first increment of US-VISIT on time and within budget.  And, as it includes biometrics ahead of schedule, we have exceeded the mandate established by Congress.

On January 5th, 2004, USVISIT entry procedures were operational at 115 airports and 14 seaports.  By the end of the year, USVISIT will be in operation at our 50 busiest land ports of entry.  We have also begun pilot-testing biometric exit procedures at one airport and one seaport and will expand to additional pilot locations later this summer.

US-VISIT procedures are clear, simple, and fast for visitors.  On average, US-VISIT procedures take less than 15 seconds per person during the inspection process.  As of April 20th, more than 3 million foreign visitors have been processed.

As impressive as its speed is its thoroughness.  Already US-VISIT has matched more than 300 persons against criminal databases, preventing more than 100 known or suspected criminals from entering the country.  More than 200 were matched while applying for a visa at a State Department post overseas.

As noted earlier, we are also dedicated to safeguarding travelers' privacy.  We have extended the principles and protections of the 1974 Privacy Act to all individuals processed through US-VISIT.  And US-VISIT features a three-stage process for redress if an individual has a complaint.

Visitors to this nation have a right to be secure from criminals and predators.  US-VISIT has helped to make that right a reality.

One example: on December 28th, 2003, an international traveler appeared for inspection at Newark International Airport.  Standard biographic record checks using a name and date of birth would likely have cleared the individual.  However, when his fingerprints were scanned and checked against the US-VISIT biometric database, it was revealed that he was a convicted felon who had been previously deported from the United States.  He had used multiple aliases to disguise from authorities his record of rape, assault, criminal possession of a weapon, and the making of terrorist threats.

Similar examples abound.  A fugitive drug trafficker was captured after two decades on the run.  A traveler sporting three Social Security numbers and a 14-year criminal history was nabbed.  And just weeks ago, an airline crewmember was biometrically identified as having been convicted for forgery and violation of electronic funds transfer accounts.  Crewmembers are not exempt from US-VISIT.  She was sent home and her visa was cancelled.

Through US-VISIT, our two Departments have identified numerous criminal and immigration-law violators who otherwise would have disappeared.  Every day the system highlights the importance of using accurate, timely information to protect our nation from terrorists and criminals -- and, I would add, to protect innocent non-citizens and their families from being tarred with a broad brush or targeted by mistake.  By focusing on individual behavior, US-VISIT and programs like it help reduce our reliance on more arbitrary and unfair standards such as nationality.

VWP AND US-VISIT

In FY 2003, the Department of Homeland Security recorded the admission of approximately 13 million Visa Waiver Program traveler visits through air and sea ports of entry.

By expanding US-VISIT to include processing of Visa Waiver Program travelers, the Department expects to double the number of admissions processed through US-VISIT, thus enhancing the integrity of our borders.

I would add that there are some travelers from Visa Waiver countries who are required to obtain nonimmigrant visas, and so have already been successfully processed through US-VISIT.  Since its implementation, approximately 400,000 nonimmigrant visa holders from Visa Waiver Program countries have been processed.

Earlier this month we briefed ambassadors of Visa Waiver countries on this change, and overall they are supportive.  A European Commission spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that, "We [will] work closely with the U.S., with whom we share counterterrorism goals, to ensure that any new measures are introduced with minimum disruption and maximum safety."

AN OPEN AND WELCOMING NATION

These Visa Waiver Program countries appreciate our interest in increasing security as well as our support for the deadline extension to enable them to follow our lead.

Many of them, including Australia, the Netherlands, and Singapore, are actively engaged in developing programs that will allow them to collect biometrics and match the data upon a visitor's entry.  We are working with many of these countries to share information about terrorism and other security threats, in addition to opportunities for improvements in immigration and border management.

And we are working with Secretary Powell to get the word out that the United States remains an open and welcoming nation to those who wish to live, work or study here.

The number of international students enrolling in our universities and colleges continues to show positive annual growth, even after the shock of 9-11.  We are committed to growing that number higher.

Yes, this new era demands new security requirements, such as mandatory interviews for visa-holders, small processing fees, and the verification of a student's enrollment status through our Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS, which serves nearly 10,000 campuses across the country.

But it also demands that we extend a helping hand.  Our SEVIS "Tiger Teams," for instance, show up at airports as foreign students arrive to help them navigate the process.  They serve as on-scene ombudsmen, contacting the universities and trouble-shooting so that legitimate students are not left behind.

US-VISIT is critical to our national security as well as our economic freedom.  It is already making a significant contribution to the Department's efforts to provide a safer and more secure America.

We recognize that we have a long way to go.  We will build upon this initial framework and solid foundation to ensure that we continue to meet our goals of enhancing our security while facilitating travel for the millions of visitors we welcome each year.

We are committed to a program that enhances the integrity of our immigration system, that catches the few and expedites the many -- and, above all, that keeps our doors open and our nation secure.

Countries in the Visa Waiver Program are our closest allies and economic partners.  A two-year extension of the October 26th, 2004 biometrics deadline will permit these allies to remain in the Visa Waiver Program.  And processing Visa Waiver Program travelers through US-VISIT will help our two Departments -- and nation -- achieve our security objectives.

Thank you for inviting us here today.  I hope you support our request and I look forward to answering your questions.