- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Congress is likely to give the 27 countries in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program two more years before requiring that their passports include new security features, such as biometric identifiers, House Judiciary Committee members said yesterday.

Right now, citizens of about two dozen countries can travel to the United States temporarily without a visa under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). In 2002, Congress set a Oct. 26 deadline for those countries’ passports to include the new biometric security features such as facial recognition, retinal scans and digital fingerprints.

With that deadline looming and few countries, including the United States, ready to meet it, members of Congress said they will have to grant an extension.

“It appears that for most visa-waiver countries the deadline is unreachable,” said committee Chairman Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican.

Mr. Sensenbrenner endorsed the motion by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who testified before the committee yesterday, to set a new deadline of Nov. 30, 2006.

“We felt that of countries in the VWP program, there are a number of them who clearly can meet the deadline within a year and will start to issue the new passports within a year. But it was just as clear that other countries were further behind,” Mr. Powell said.

In the interim, Mr. Ridge suggested that visitors from all 27 visa-waiver countries be subject to Homeland Security’s US-VISIT check system as a fail-safe.

US-VISIT verifies whether the person applying for entry to the United States at the gate is the same person who was issued a visa by consular affairs officers at embassies around the world. The system uses digital photos and fingerprints that are instantly checked against the FBI and CIA criminal and terrorist watch-list databases, he said.

Those citizens from visa-waiver countries would be enrolled in the database when they next arrive in the United States so their information is on hand for future visits. These visitors are allowed to travel in the United States for tourism or business for 90 days or less without obtaining a visa.

Mr. Ridge said US-VISIT has matched more than 300 persons against criminal databases and prevented more than 100 known or suspected criminals from entering the country.

Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, questioned Mr. Powell on the length of the extension, saying it “seems to me that two years is too long.” And Mr. Sensenbrenner and other members of the committee questioned whether waiving the visa requirement for any visitors, regardless of the nation’s relationship with their home country, was prudent.

“Spain is a Visa Waiver Program country, and it appears that most of the terrorists who carried out the Madrid [train station] bombings were Spanish citizens or legal immigrants entitled to passports, which they could have used to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program,” Mr. Sensenbrenner said.

Britain, France and Spain are among the VWP participants.

Rep. Melvin Watt, North Carolina Democrat, said he does not support the program at all.

He listed French national Zacharias Moussaoui, a suspected al Qaeda member arrested as the “20th hijacker” after the September 11 attacks, and the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, a British national who was arrested on a plane headed toward the United States with plastic explosives in the soles of his sneakers, as examples of the dangers of waiving visa requirements.

“I think a more relevant question would be whether the Visa Waiver Program has a rational basis itself … It seems to me that we are in exigent circumstances, and we know that,” Mr. Watt said.

Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, asked why there are no African or Caribbean nations with visa-waiver status. She also said the United States should be at “zero tolerance” when it comes to foreign visitors, learning a “big lesson” from September 11.

“I must tell you that I do not support the Visa Waiver Program at all. I think it’s discriminatory,” Mrs. Waters said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican and chairman of a Senate immigration subcommittee, introduced a bill Tuesday to extend the biometric passport deadline following the recommendation of Mr. Ridge and Mr. Powell.

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