DHS travel authorization system allows thousands to slip through cracks

The Homeland Security Department is allowing about 364,000 foreign visitors from visa waiver countries to travel into the United States each year without obtaining all the proper authorizations, a Government Accountability Office told a Senate subcommittee on March 27.

Currently, there are 36 countries that have signed agreements to jointly waive visas for travel to and from the United States.

About 98 percent of visitors from those countries are complying with DHS’ Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), but the department has not assessed the security risks posed by the 2 percent of travelers who are not compliant, Rebecca Gambler, director of homeland security and justice issues for the GAO, said in her testimony.

Under the electronic system, travelers must submit biographical information and provide answers to eligibility questions prior to travel. Approval is good for two years.

In 2010, airlines complied with the requirement to verify approvals with the electronic system for almost 98 percent of visa waiver program passengers prior to boarding.

“The remaining 2 percent—about 364,000 travelers—traveled under the program without verified ESTA approval,” the GAO said in its report.

The GAO reported on the problem a year ago, but DHS has not completed a review to date. DHS officials told the watchdog agency they would begin quarterly risk reviews.

In addition, DHS has reported that only about half of the 36 countries that have agreed to visa waivers are fully compliant with the signed agreements. “Many of the signed agreements have not been implemented,” GAO said in the report.

DHS said it has established a compliance schedule to make the agreements final by June 2012.

The hearing was held by the Senate Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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