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Secretary Powell Advocates Extension of Biometric Passport Deadline

Cite as "AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 04042161 (posted Apr. 21, 2004)"

Secure Borders, Open Doors


Secretary Colin L. Powell
Op-Ed
Wall Street Journal
April 21, 2004

On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacked our homeland, ruthlessly exploiting our openness, and killing some 3,000 people from 90 countries in the process. But President Bush and the American people are determined that they shall not shatter our will or shut down our free and democratic society.

In response to the attacks, the U.S. and our allies launched a global war on terrorism. At the same time, President Bush resolved to keep our doors open and our borders secure. We are doing our utmost to balance the need to protect our citizens with the need to preserve America's accessibility.

Some argue that we should raise the drawbridge and not allow in any more foreign visitors. They are wrong. Such a move would hand a victory to the terrorists by having us betray our most cherished principles. For our own nation's well being, and because we have so much to give, we must keep our doors open to the world. That is also why, as I will testify today before the House Judiciary Committee, Congress should extend the biometric passport deadline for the Visa Waiver Program that allows citizens of 27 countries, including Britain, France, Germany and Japan, to visit temporarily without a visa.

Openness is fundamental to our success as a nation, economically, culturally and politically. Our economy will sputter unless America remains the magnet for entrepreneurs from across the world. Our culture will stagnate unless we continue to add new richness to our mosaic. And our great national mission of spreading freedom will founder if our own society closes its shutters to new people and ideas. Openness also is central to our diplomatic success, for our openness is a pillar of American influence and leadership or what is sometimes called "soft power."

We want to preserve and even expand the benefits of openness, but we also need to be uncompromising on protecting America's security. The past 30 months have seen some fundamental changes, such as the creation of the Department of Homeland Security-the largest reorganization of our government since World War II. For its part, the State Department has taken many steps to strengthen the integrity of the visa process. We have greatly increased the level of data sharing between State and law enforcement and intelligence communities. We have made visa information available to inspectors at all ports of entry. We have tightened interview requirements, hired additional consular officers, and incorporated a biometrics check into the visa process.

Security is always Job One, but we are committed to minimizing the impact of new procedures on legitimate travelers. It is not likely that any of the Visa Waver Program countries will produce 100% biometric passports by the October 2004 deadline set by Congress in the Border Security Act, which is why we are asking Congress to extend or waive that deadline for VWP countries. But we are engaged in a global effort to enroll biometrically scanned fingerprints of all visa applicants, as required by law. This will allow us to identify and impede the travel of impostors, known criminals and possible terrorists. We are doing so in a manner that is quick, efficient, and nonintrusive to the traveler. In fact, feedback from U.S. embassies and consulates overseas indicates that much of the traveling public there sees these new requirements as enhancing their security, not just ours. When we make our nation safer for Americans, we are also making it safer for those who would come here to enjoy what our country has to offer.

We have invested significant money and time in our name-check system so that we can move visa applicants more quickly through the clearance process, which has been a source of frustration and delays for students and researchers, among others. We are making real progress. Last year, the wait time for students and scholars who require special clearances averaged two months. Today, 80 % of these visas are issued within three weeks. We are not yet where we want to be, but we are committed to efficiently facilitating the travel of students, scholars and all other legitimate travelers.

We recently increased to one year the validity of the clearance granted to certain scientists and scholars who participate in joint-research programs. This enables travelers who need to make repeated visits within a given year to do so without our consular officers having to go back to Washington for an additional name check. We work every day with business, industry, the academic community and the general public to see that access to our country is not impeded for those whose presence we encourage and value.

We are working hard to further reduce delays and improve our service. Why? When a foreign student goes elsewhere to school, we lose not only the student, but his entire family, including siblings, who might have followed in their brother's or sister's footsteps. When scientists hold conferences in other countries, we lose their brainpower for our institutions. When business travelers and tourists go elsewhere, we lose more than their money. We lose their good will.

The U.S. has always welcomed visitors, as befits a nation of immigrants. My own family benefited from this generosity, my parents having emigrated from the Caribbean. While terrorists have done material harm to the U.S., they will never destroy the essential, embracing spirit of America. Please pardon the inconvenience while we are adjusting to new circumstances. But rest assured: In every sense, America is still open for business.

[End]

Released on April 21, 2004

 
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