- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Foreign visitors must preregister with Homeland Security officials for extra scrutiny before visiting the U.S. under a new government rule announced Tuesday that closes a security gap that exempts nearly 30 countries from requiring a travel visa.

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an online system that travelers must access at least 72 hours prior to visiting the U.S. to provide certain information including name, birth date, passport information, flight number and a destination address.

Other eligibility questions will pertain to communicable diseases, arrests and convictions for certain crimes and any past history of visa revocation or deportation that will be queried against law-enforcement databases before a visit to the U.S. is approved.

“It is a relatively simple and effective way to strengthen our security, and that of international travelers, while helping to preserve an important program for key allies,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

“It is individual behavior, individual biography, individual biometrics and individual travel history that is the fairest and also the most efficient way to identify those who may pose a threat to the United States if they´re permitted to enter,” Mr. Chertoff said.

The 27 countries that are part of the visa-waiver program include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Norway, Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Britain. Travelers from Canada and Mexico are not affected by the new rule.

The visa waiver is granted for the purpose of staying in the U.S. for 90 days or less for tourism or business trips. The new rule will take effect Jan. 12, and the new procedure will be required before boarding commercial flights or cruise ships.

However, Homeland Security officials will begin accepting applications Aug. 1 for preregistration that will be valid for travel for two years, and visitors must still complete an I-94W form.

“Rather than relying on paper-based procedures, this system will leverage 21st century electronic means to obtain basic information about who is traveling to the U.S. without a visa,” Mr. Chertoff said.

“Getting this information in advance enables our front-line personnel to determine whether a visa-free traveler presents a threat, before boarding an aircraft or arriving on our shores,” he said.

During the past fiscal year, more than 15 million tourists visited the U.S. under the visa-waiver program.

The National Business Travel Association (NBTA) said it generally supports the new requirement but added that options are needed to accommodate travelers who arrive at airports and are not aware of the new rule.

Bill Connors, NBTA executive director, said the association also is concerned that sufficient resources will not be available to interview people who are denied authorization to travel.

David Heyman, homeland security program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the new rule carries a heavy burden to maintain accuracy.

“For anyone who has tried to get off the terrorist watch list - which is only a U.S. database - you can only imagine the challenge of tracking down inaccurate derogatory information on yourself that is now part of a much wider global network,” he said.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide