You may recall seeing news stories last fall about a new program introduced by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In a pilot program at the Atlanta airport, foreign visitors were fingerprinted and had their photographs taken upon entr...
You may recall seeing news stories last fall about a new program introduced by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In a pilot program at the Atlanta airport, foreign visitors were fingerprinted and had their photographs taken upon entry.
Readers of this column may also remember the well-publicized feature of U.S. Immigration legislation in 1996 that required the implementation of an automated entry/exit system along the Canadian border. This provision resulted in outrage among government agencies, the transportation industry and residents of Canada and the U.S., in reaction to the imagined delays and inconvenience at land border crossings.
The 1996 legislation and the 2003 pilot program are related measures. The new program, called US-VISIT, is a starting point for the introduction of a system that will verify identities, check backgrounds and keep track of when people enter and leave the United States. Currently, Canadian citizens and visitors from certain other countries are not subject to the procedure.
The outcry in 1996 was not only a reaction to potential inconvenience at the border, but also a reaction to concern about any diminution of the long-standing visa-exempt status that forms the basis for easy visits by citizens of one country into the other. One can be a visitor for business purposes, such as a truck driver, or a visitor for pleasure, such as for shopping and recreation. In response to the outcry from both sides of the border, and the practical fact that no funding had been established to implement and develop such a system, the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (now the DHS) postponed the matter in the late 1990s for further study. Then came the Sept. 11 attacks, involving individuals with questionable visa status, visa overstays, or both. Suddenly the funding and the necessity for an efficient program came into focus, and new “data management” legislation went into effect in 2002. The system was in place at approximately 50 air and seaports as of Dec. 31, 2003. Most of the major land ports of entry will implement the system by the end of 2004, and all ports of entry will be in compliance by the end of 2005.
Why are citizens of some countries subject to the rule and others are not? The answer lies in the current purpose of US-VISIT. Currently, the primary reason for obtaining the digital fingerprint and photograph upon entry, is to verify the identity of the person by matching those items against the same biometric information that was gathered at the time of visa issuance. Under new security guidelines in place in U.S. Consulates around the world, a visa applicant is “enrolled” in a biometric database at the time of visa issuance. To prevent entries on counterfeit visas or entries by someone using another’s passport and visa, the person repeats the procedure upon entry to the United States. Since the visa applicant’s biometric data is contained in the database, the DHS can verify that the person entering into the United States is the same person that applied for the visa overseas. Also, the DHS and other government agencies are continually compiling names and other information on known or suspected terrorists and security threats throughout the world. Persons who don’t match the database, or who are found to be a threat to security, can be easily identified and handled accordingly.
The primary goal of identity verification for visa holders means that US-VISIT does not apply to individuals who do not possess a Consular-issued visa. This would include virtually all Canadian citizen visitors and most Canadians holding temporary work visas. It also wouldn’t pertain to citizens of the approximately 30 “visa waiver” countries, eligible to visit the United States for up to 90 days without the issuance of a Consular visa. (Most European countries fall into this category.)
It appears clear there is an ultimate goal of monitoring all entries and exits to the United States, including those of Canadians. Even if there is no biometric database for visa exempt individuals, there is justification for trying to detect entries by known or suspected terrorists or others who pose a threat to U.S. security. There is also a desire to monitor and address the visa overstay problem (or, for persons without visas, those who live, remain and/or work in the U.S. illegally after entry). The DHS estimated the overstay population at 2.3 million as of January 2000. The US-VISIT system will eventually allow the DHS to monitor all entries and exits more efficiently and detect those who violate their visa-exempt privilege by remaining in the U.S. improperly after visitor entry. As of this writing, no formal policy has been announced regarding Canadian citizens. We anticipate further announcements as US-VISIT is implemented throughout the northern border in 2004 and 2005.