With almost no country reporting an ability to meet the U.S. October deadline for machine-readable passports with biometric identifiers, two of the U.S.’s top officials–Secretary of State Colin Powell and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge–have asked Congress to extend the deadline for the enhanced passports by an additional two years.
The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act (EBSA) established October 26, 2004, as the deadline for Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries to begin issuing machine-readable passports with biometric identifiers (as defined by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Both men have asked Congress to extend that deadline to Nov. 30, 2006.
Secretary Powell told a congressional committee last month that even the U.S. was having trouble meeting the deadline.
“Although the governments of the VWP countries share a commitment to this step forward, many are encountering the same challenges that we face in our own effort to introduce embedded biometrics to the U.S. passport,” said Secretary Powell.
“Rushing a solution to meet the current deadline virtually guarantees that we will have systems that are not interoperable,” he added. “Such a result may undercut international acceptance of this new technology as well as compound rather than ease our overall challenge.”
Secretary Ridge agreed in his testimony to the same House Judiciary committee, stating: “Adhering to the original deadline 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.”
“The challenge provided to the international community by … EBSA is a daunting one,” testified Secretary Powell. “Meeting it has taken VWP countries and the U.S. to the cutting edge of existing technologies. As a consequence we’re confronted by complex technological issues. Among these are the security of the passport data, the interoperability of readers and passports, and the reliability of the chips embedded in the passports–will they last for the life of the passport, for example, which in most cases is 10 years.”
Added Secretary Ridge: “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 26 deadline, few, if any, of these countries will actually be able to produce biometric passports by that date.”
“None of the larger countries, for example, Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy or Spain, will begin issuing passports with standardized biometrics by that deadline,” said Secretary Powell. “Japan and the United Kingdom say they will begin in late 2005. Others may not come on-line until well into 2006.”
He said there are other “serious consequences” as well if the deadline isn’t extended. “Since travelers from VWP countries with passports issued on or after October 26, 2004 without biometrics will need visas to travel to the United States, we estimate that the demand for non-immigrant visas will jump by over 5 million applications in FY 2005. This represents a 70% increase in our non-immigrant visa workload,” said Secretary Powell.
Secretary Ridge told Congress that holding to the deadline “…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. It must be noted that the reason these countries cannot meet the October 26 deadline is not a lack of will or commitment, but rather challenging scientific and technical issues.”
While Congress has yet to act on the request, it appears likely that the deadline extension will be granted.
Secretary Ridge suggested an interim solution to the deadline extension that “…involves enrolling Visa Waiver Program travelers in the US-VISIT (Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) system, beginning this fall.”
DHS last month announced that it will begin processing visitors traveling under the VWP in US-VISIT beginning by September 30 at air and sea ports of entry. Basically, visitors from VWP countries would be fingerprinted, photographed, and checked against red-flag databases in the same manner as visitors from non-VWP countries.
An estimated 13 million visitors from Visa Waiver Countries enter the U.S. each year. Travelers from Visa Waiver Countries are allowed to enter the U.S. for up to 90 days for business or pleasure using only a passport.
“Since its inception on January 5, 2004, it’s clear that US-VISIT is working, said DHS Under Secretary Asa Hutchinson. “It’s clean, it’s quick, it’s simple and without question, it is enhancing the integrity of our immigration systems, while protecting individual privacy.”
The following 27 countries are currently in the VWP: Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom (for citizens with the unrestricted right of permanent abode in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man).