Turner proposes database checks for visa-waiver visitors

Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas) introduced a bill today that would require the Homeland Security Department to check travelers from visa-waiver countries against existing terrorist databases before they come to this country. It would also provide a one-year extension for those countries to provide passports with biometric identifiers, which are now required by U.S. law.

He said the bill would close a critical security gap.

"As we all know it's highly likely al Qaeda or other terrorists could fly from or have citizenship in these countries and could come to our shores without any kind of visa under this visa-waiver program," said Turner, the ranking Democrat on the House Select Homeland Security Committee, during a phone conference with reporters.

Turner said the bill — the Safe Efficient Coordinated Unified Revitalized Enhanced (SECURE) Visa Waiver Act — requires a biographical check of passengers who fly from 27 visa-waiver countries. The information must be compared to two federal databases: the State Department's Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS) and the Customs and Border Protection's Interagency Border Inspections System (IBIS).

CLASS matches information to individual visa applicants and is linked to records in other federal agencies, including the FBI, Customs and Border Protection, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the intelligence community. IBIS is used by personnel in 20 different federal agencies for clearance at ports of entry. It tracks data on suspect individuals, businesses, vehicles, aircraft and vessels. Officials can use it to access national criminal records on wanted persons, stolen vehicles, vessels or firearms, license information, criminal histories and other information.

"We're suggesting that from these countries where the visa is waived, that we should do a check in advance of all the passengers that get on these planes," Turner said. "We're not requiring a visa, but we could utilize the same watch list to check to see if these people boarding these planes should be flagged."

Turner said his bill provides for more meaningful security than two House and Senate bills that simply provide a one-year extension to a deadline for visa-waiver countries to provide machine-readable passports with biometric information. SECURE would also allow DHS officials to grant two successive six-month extensions if countries show good faith and evidence they're working toward an acceptable passport.

State and DHS officials have favored a two-year extension to the Oct. 26 deadline, established by the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002. Many countries have found that building machine-readable passport is a technologically complex task. It's not a question of will, but means and time, they said.

Some congressional lawmakers have been hesitant to grant an extension, but many also said visitors from countries such as the United Kingdom, France and Japan may think it's too cumbersome to apply for U.S. visas and instead opt to travel elsewhere.

DHS officials will begin processing travelers from visa-waiver countries through the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program Sept. 30. Turner said travelers may also provide biographic information to airlines or travel agents who can submit the information to the federal government. Travelers can submit the data via a secure Web site. He said he didn't think that would be a problem because they provide that cooperation at this time.

"All it is, is a matter of utilizing that system to be sure that we don't have people coming from visa-wavier countries that have a record that would indicate they may be a danger or threat to the United States," he said.

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