Visa requirements threaten to overload airport security

Business leaders and federal officials warned Congress Thursday that the U.S. entry-exit system for foreign travelers may not be able to process people quickly during peak travel periods.

At Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia, for example, 800 to 1,000 international passengers arrive per hour, and that number will increase to 2,000 in the summer, testified David Plavin, president of the Airports Council International-North America. He spoke at a hearing of the House Government Reform Committee.

Unless significant numbers of government workers come on board to screen the additional travelers through the U.S. Visit entry-exit system, commerce and tourism travel will be disrupted, Plavin said.

The U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator System operates in 115 U.S. airports and 14 seaports, where people entering the country on a visa are digitally fingerprinted and photographed. That biometric information is compared with law enforcement and intelligence databases to identify those who may be security threats. The system will expand to land border posts in 2005 and 2006.

Homeland Security Department officials say the U.S. Visit data collection takes about 15 seconds, which Plavin said is "an ambitious goal."

The officials also warned that processing delays at the nation's airports, ports and land border crossings could increase because of the inability of 27 foreign governments to meet a U.S. deadline for use of passports with biometric identifiers.

The 27 countries in the Visa Waiver Program do not need to issue visas to their citizens who want to visit the United States. The Border Security Act requires these nations by Oct. 26 to issue machine-readable passports that incorporate biometric identifiers.

"Very few, and potentially no, Visa Waiver Program countries will be able to meet the ? deadline," said Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs.

Visitors from visa waiver countries that don't have machine-readable passports by Oct. 26 will need visas to travel to the United States, and they will have to go through the U.S. Visit system. The State Department estimates that the demand for nonimmigrant visas will jump by more than 5 million applications in fiscal 2005, nearly double last year's workload, Harty said.

"It's a frightening prospect," Harty said. "It's a short-term problem, but has a big impact on tourism, commerce and academia."

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