Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Bush administration announced plans yesterday for a “paperless” U.S. visa application system that will enable foreigners to apply for visas electronically and use digital video technology to conduct remote interviews.

The administration also will allow U.S. citizens to use new simplified “passport cards” instead of regular passports when traveling to and from Canada and Mexico after Jan. 1, 2008.

“We seek to use new information technology to renew America’s welcome, making it as easy as possible for foreign visitors to travel to the United States, and to do so securely and safely,” said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“We seek to create travel documents for the 21st century — documents that can protect personal identity and expedite secure travel,” she said.

Announcing the initiative at the State Department, both Miss Rice and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff gave assurances that the schemes will not compromise U.S. security by making it easier for terrorists to enter the country.

“We’ll have the opportunity to transform our border management, decreasing wait times at ports of entry, and allowing us to focus our resources on that minority of people who pose a threat,” Mr. Chertoff said.

Miss Rice said, “We must ensure that the security of the visa process remains intact.”

The administration announced last year that a driver’s license would no longer be recognized as a secure travel document under Congress’ Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, requiring those who enter the United States from Canada or Mexico to carry a passport. The regulation is to take effect at airports on Jan. 1, 2007, and at land crossings on Jan. 1, 2008.

But, fearing massive tie-ups among thousands of people who cross the borders for work or shopping every day, the administration is now proposing a “travel card system” that would apply only at land crossings.

The Canadian Embassy in Washington said a similar system is not being considered in Canada at this time but did not exclude the possibility.

The paperless visa application process, when implemented, will represent “the biggest qualitative change” in U.S. visa policy in about 150 years, a senior State Department official said.

Candidates from around the world have been complaining for years about a process that forces them to travel hundreds — in some cases thousands — of miles, pay more than $100 and wait in line for hours to apply for visas they may never receive.

The new proposal, to be tested later this year in Britain, will allow applicants who live far from U.S. embassies or consulates to be interviewed via video conference with consular officials.

A senior State Department official said the “biggest technological challenge” of the remote video interviews is collecting fingerprints — a requirement since 2003.

The official said that it would take time to implement the new ideas — noting that some of them may not work — but that the administration is committed to being “creative and transparent about what we are doing.”

The State Department said it “will pilot a fully electronic visa application by December 2006 to expand the collection and use of information.”

To help businesses bring foreign employees and other visitors to the United States, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security “are enrolling companies for expedited visa processing,” Miss Rice said.

She also noted that a “pilot model airport program” will be rolled out this year at Washington Dulles and Houston’s George Bush airports.

“The pilot project will include customized public video messages to help foreign travelers move efficiently through the border entry process, and it will feature friendly greeters to assist foreign travelers once they have been admitted to our country,” she said.

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