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25 October 2004

Foreign Visitors to United States Need Machine-Readable Passports

But noncompliant visitors will get one-time exemption, Homeland Security says

Citizens of Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries entering the United States must have either machine-readable passports (MRPs) or visas in their non-MRPs starting October 26.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will enforce the new policy at the entry points, Under Secretary Asa Hutchinson said October 22 as he briefed reporters in Washington about the policy change. The United States is requiring machine-readable passports because they are considered more secure documents and less subject to falsification.

Anticipating that some visitors from the 22 affected VWP nations might not have the new high-tech documents when they appear at the border, Hutchinson said that immigration officials are permitted to grant a one-time exemption to this policy and allow travelers entry without MRPs or visas in their passports.

The transcript of Hutchinson's briefing follows:

(begin transcript)

New Requirements and Procedures for Machine-Readable Passports

Asa Hutchinson, Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Border and Transportation Security

Foreign Press Center Briefing
Washington, DC
October 22, 2004
1:00 P.M. EDT

MR. MACINNES: Good afternoon. The Foreign Press Center is delighted today to have a briefing with the Under Secretary for Borders and Transportation Security from the Homeland Security Department, Asa Hutchinson. We have New York with us on a passive feed; if they have questions, they can call in and we'll pass those questions forward.

This is a briefing on machine-readable passports. This is not the first time, I believe, you've been here, you've done this before, and so without much further ado, because it is Friday in the afternoon, we'll just start.


UNDER SECRETARY HUTCHINSON: Thank you, and thank you for your attention on a Friday afternoon. I do have a brief announcement, an explanation to provide to you, and my announcement pertains to the countries that requested extensions from the machine-readable passport deadline that was originally, last October, based upon the Secretary of State's designation, was extended to this October 26th. As you know, there's a statutory requirement for Visa Waiver Program travelers to have a machine-readable passport, and it is a responsibility of [the Department of] Homeland Security to ensure that the law is enforced based upon that legal requirement, based on the requirements of security, and also based upon the nature of America as a welcoming nation.

Starting next Tuesday, October 26, Homeland Security officers will begin enforcing the law that requires all passports to be machine-readable or the traveler must have a visa. And I want to make you aware of several steps that we are taking to ensure that the transition into this will happen with as little disruption as possible to the travelers. Under our authority under the law, we are going to allow border officers to make a one-time exception of this requirement. This exception means that a traveler arriving in the United States without a visa and without a machine-readable passport will be allowed to enter the U.S. for up to 90 days. We will annotate their passport and issue them a written letter stating that they must obtain a machine-readable passport or visa for any future travel to the United States. In addition, the traveler will be processed through U.S.-VISIT, the biometric U.S. entry-exit system.

We want to accomplish our objective of full compliance as soon as possible, but we also want people to understand that we are taking steps to ensure that their first experience in the United States will be a positive experience. We believe that these steps are prudent, considering the nature of the violation, but we also want to encourage people, by this announcement today, to make an effort to immediately update their travel documents to conform to U.S. travel rules. People who want to enjoy the ease of traveling to the United States without a visa need to take steps now, today, to ensure that they meet the requirements of U.S. law for their future visits.

I would end by saying that this policy will be reviewed in six months to see whether any adjustments need to be made, but we wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to advise the public in general, particularly our international audience, of these new procedures, requirements, and how this new requirement will be implemented.

With that, I'm happy to answer any questions.

QUESTION: Charlene Porter with the Washington File. Mr. Hutchinson, would you please offer a little bit more context about the international security concerns in terms of why a machine-readable passport is a better document, not just for travel just to the United States, but U.S. travelers anywhere, why this is a document that you feel is a more sound travel document?

UNDER SECRETARY HUTCHINSON: Good question, and thank you for it. A machine-readable passport has more security features than a passport that does not have the strip, that is not machine-readable. The security features are something that is necessary in today's environment. And as you know, we are moving actually beyond the machine-readable requirement even to including a biometric feature, with that deadline being October of 2005. But the machine-readable passports have additional security features that are important and that minimize the ability to fraudulently use a passport, and those added security features are important for compliance with our laws and for the nature of today's world.

QUESTION: Edith Gruenwald, Austrian Press Agency. It says here the Custom and Border Protection officer is permitted to grant a one-time exemption to admit the traveler to the United States. So the traveler has no guarantee that he will get this exemption, or it can be that the first time without a machine-readable passport he will be sent back, or not?

UNDER SECRETARY HUTCHINSON: No, the traveler, first of all -- we hope by this announcement and the emphasis that's been placed during the last year -- will comply, will have a machine-readable passport. But we also are fully aware that there's varying capabilities by the countries, there's various levels of machine-readable passports that have been issued, and that there will be some travelers that have not heard of this announcement, that have made the travel arrangements, that will be coming to the United States with their family or with others. And we are making it clear that they will not be simply turned back, but they will be allowed into the United States and not be turned back simply because there is a noncompliance with machine-readable passport requirement. And so they will be allowed in. The passport will be annotated. It will be noted. It will be stamped that this is a one-time entry permission and that the next time they would return to the United States, they would be required to have a machine-readable passport and they would be denied entry if they do not.

QUESTION: Miroslav Konvalina, Czech Radio. People in Czech Republic have different problems that, if they have new passport, they don't have visa in new passport. And is the visa in the old passport still valid or they have to get new visa for new passport?

UNDER SECRETARY HUTCHINSON: If they have a visa that is still effective, then as long as they have that visa, then the old passport will be sufficient [in terms of the visa, and in addition they'll need a new passport that is machine-readable].

QUESTION: Thank you. Russian News Agency, ITAR-TASS. I have, actually, two questions. The first one is that Russia is going to make new passports, and are United States willing to help us in this thing, yes? And maybe there will be some cooperations between our departments?

And the second question is that U.S. Government basically set a new deadline for introduction of new biometrical passports and Russia is not a part of this program, but if we are not available to do this until October of the next year, if there will be some further restrictions on Russian travelers to United States?

UNDER SECRETARY HUTCHINSON: These new passport requirements apply to the Visa Waiver countries and so this will not inhibit or be a problem for those countries that have traditionally had a visa requirement, and so there will not be any adverse impact.

We certainly applaud all of the countries that are moving toward more secure passports and we have a strong level of international cooperation and discussion on the technical requirements, on the testing of these, and we certainly include Russia in those discussions. And so whereas the responsibility and the technical capability lies with the individual countries, we certainly have a good level of exchange from a technical standpoint and from cooperation and sharing of best practices with those countries.

QUESTION: Patrick Jarreau, Le Monde. Are all American citizens required to have machine-readable passports, and do they have them?

UNDER SECRETARY HUTCHINSON: The State Department is responsible, of course, for issuing our U.S. passports and the requirements -- the answer is yes, they have -- we have a program to issue machine-readable passports, we are issuing machine-readable passports, and we are working aggressively to meet the requirements for a biometric feature in those machine-readable passports. But that is not a part of the requirements for Visa Waiver countries. We're undertaking that independently of the statutory requirement.

QUESTION: Hi, Leslie Miller with AP International. If I could just follow up on that. Do you know what the plans are for RFID passports for U.S. citizens?

UNDER SECRETARY HUTCHINSON: No, I do not. That probably needs to be addressed to the State Department.

Thank you for your attention to this important issue -- thank you.

(end transcript)

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)