U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security Launches US-Visit Program

WASHINGTON, DC – The U.S. Department of Homeland Security today launched US-VISIT, a new program to enhance the nation’s security while facilitating legitimate travel and trade through our borders. New entry procedures took effect today for most foreign visitors with non-immigrant visas at 115 airports and cruise ship terminals at 14 seaports. The system utilizes biometrics, which are physical characteristics unique to each individual to verify identity. Biometric technologies are the basis of an extensive array of highly secure identification and personal verification solutions.

“Today marks the beginning of a new chapter in our government’s commitment to securing our nation while upholding America’s ideals about freedom of travel and the spirit of welcoming foreigner visitors,” said Tom Ridge, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, while greeting passengers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. “US-VISIT is an important new element in the global war against terrorism and will serve as a catalyst in the growing international use of biometrics to expedite processing of travelers. We want to show the world that we can keep our borders open and our nation secure.”

US-VISIT requires that most foreign visitors traveling to the U.S. on a visa have their two index fingers scanned and a digital photograph taken to verify their identity at the port of entry. The US-VISIT program will enhance the security of U.S. citizens and visitors by verifying the identity of visitors with visas. At the same time, it facilitates legitimate travel and trade by leveraging technology and the evolving use of biometrics to expedite processing at our borders.

“US-VISIT represents the greatest improvement in border inspection in more than three decades, and is a shining example of what we can achieve when government works together,” said Asa Hutchinson, Under Secretary of Border and Transportation Security of the Department of Homeland Security. “US-VISIT is actually a continuum of security measures that begins overseas, at the U.S. consular offices issuing visas, where biometrics will be collected to determine if the applicant is on a database of known or suspected criminals or terrorists. When the visitor gets to our border, we use the same biometrics – these digital “fingerscans” – to verify that the person at our port is the same person who received the visa or to see if we have learned new information about any involvement in terrorism or crime. This type of identify verification helps our Customs and Border Protection Officers make better admissibility decisions and enhances the overall integrity of our immigration system.”

The Department of Homeland Security has been testing the new entry procedures since November 17 at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The test showed that the new procedures add an average of 15 seconds to the entry process at primary inspection for foreign nationals traveling with visas. More than 20,000 passengers from Central and South America, Europe, Asia and South Africa participated in the voluntary test, which confirmed the program’s ability to verify identity without adding significant time to the process.

The Department of Homeland Security today also began a pilot test of exit procedures for departing passengers holding visas. A departure confirmation program using automated kiosks is being tested at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and at selected Miami Seaport cruise line terminals. Foreign visitors exiting the United States from those locations will be required to confirm their departure at the kiosk. US-VISIT officials will evaluate the tests and consider alternatives to the automated kiosks for departure confirmation throughout 2004.

Congress has mandated that an automated entry-exit program be implemented at the 50 busiest land ports of entry by December 31, 2004, and at all land ports by December 31, 2005. A Request for Proposal (RFP) was issued in November to engage the private sector to help the US-VISIT program develop the optimum solutions for entry and exit processing. The contract will be awarded in May 2004.

For more information, visit www.dhs.gov/us-visit.

Prepared Remarks by Secretary Tom Ridge at the Us-Visit Announcement at the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport

ATLANTA, GA – Good morning, it is a pleasure to be here at Atlanta International Airport to announce the launch of US-VISIT, the important new technology that you just saw demonstrated.

US-VISIT will help secure our borders and speed the entry of legitimate travelers at airports and seaports around the country.

As many of you might know, the site of this airport was originally a motor speedway. While today’s NASCAR fans might argue with me, it is clear that Mayor William Hartsfield brought the future to Atlanta when he encouraged the city to convert the little used racetrack into an airport back in 1925.

Today, this has become the busiest passenger airport in the world. More than 5 million of those passengers arrive in Atlanta from abroad, on airlines from Air Canada to South African Airways.

They come to the United States to visit family, to conduct business, and in many cases – to live the American Dream. It is a dream built by a nation of immigrants on a foundation of equality and opportunity for all.

That is why we welcome visitors of every variety – students, tourists, and businesspeople from Andorra to Zimbabwe.

Unfortunately, some people have sought to take advantage of our open arms and welcoming shores – so we must continue to protect our citizens and visitors from those who wish us harm.

Today, I am proud to launch US-VISIT, a new national program to help secure our borders and facilitate legitimate travel and trade.

US-VISIT will allow Customs and Border Protection Officers to focus on “at-risk” travelers, while speeding the entry of everyone else. At the same time, the program will protect the integrity of our immigration system by confirming a visitor’s identity and ensuring that they adhere to visa policies.

The program has been tested right here in Atlanta for several weeks – and it has been a success.

While processing more than 20,000 travelers during that time, US-VISIT has matched 21 hits on the FBI’s criminal watch list – including potential entrants with previous convictions for statutory rape, dangerous drugs, aggravated felonies, and several cases of visa fraud.

Starting today, we are introducing this critical new technology at 115 airports across the country, as well as in cruise ship terminals at 14 U.S. seaports. It is part of a comprehensive program to ensure that our borders remain open to visitors, but closed to terrorists.

For the first time, we will be collecting biometric data on travelers arriving in and departing from the United States on a visa.

In addition to the entry procedures already in place and familiar to international travelers, Customs and Border Protection Officers will now capture an inkless digital fingerprint – or “fingerscan” – as well as a digital photograph to be matched against information gathered at visa-issuing posts overseas.

As you saw in the demonstration, it’s easy for travelers to use, but hard for terrorists to avoid – and takes just a couple of seconds.

In fact, during the pilot test here in Atlanta only 15 seconds were added to processing times, bringing the total entry procedure to just more than one minute.

However, in that small amount of time we are adding an important layer of security.

Legitimate travelers who fall into America’s open arms should know that they have nothing to fear in this new system. Information gathered will be kept strictly to authorized officials on a need-to-know basis and will be governed by the Privacy Act at all times.

In fact, US-VISIT actually adds a layer of privacy for visitors by protecting them from identity theft, or lost or stolen travel documents.

However, US-VISIT will not be kind to those who think that privacy can hide their hate or their intention to harm.

It is only the smallest fraction of visitors to our country that may be involved in terrorism, but our job at the Department of Homeland Security is to be sure they are stopped. Obviously, one of the best ways is to prevent them from entering in the first place.

US-VISIT will ensure that we not only protect the homeland, but preserve the qualities that define our great country. We will rely on new technology and the reliable standard of professionalism from Customs and Border Protection Officers to keep America’s doors open and our nation more secure.

America has been – and always will be – a welcoming country. But we will also always be on guard – watchful for the signs of potential acts of terrorism. In a post 9-11 world, we have been forced to find new ways to confront new challenges.

We have met every challenge we have faced, and done so with cautious respect for the elements that make our country worth protecting – civil liberties, democracy, and above all, freedom.

Today’s announcement is no different. We have carefully addressed the mandate to secure our borders and maintain the open doors that strengthen the fabric of our society.

With the launch of US-VISIT, our doors remain open to those who love America, open to those who seek opportunity, and open to our economic partners around the world. And yet, it pulls the welcome mat from terrorists and all those who seek this nation and its people harm.

Let there be no doubt – this is a great step forward in the preservation of our security – yet another protective measure that better secures our citizens, better speeds the process for visitors, and further helps us preserve a country that has, must and always will be – safe and free.