Secretary Ridge Seeks to Extend Deadline for Biometric Passports
Homeland Security chief reviews Visa Waiver Program,
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.