State Department faces potential visa-processing nightmare

The State Department will be forced to process millions of additional visa applications annually unless Congress loosens the requirements of an immigration law enacted to protect the country from future terrorist attacks, officials said Tuesday.

Officials from the State Department and Homeland Security Department are lobbying lawmakers to relax a requirement in the 2001 Border Security Act that calls for 27 countries to issue passports with biometric data to their citizens who travel to the United States. Only two countries, which are part of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, may meet the congressionally mandated deadline of Oct. 26, 2004 for compliance, Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state of consular affairs, told lawmakers Tuesday.

Under the congressional mandate, citizens from countries that do not meet the deadline will have to go through the formal U.S. visa application process. Harty said the State Department estimates that consular offices, in turn, will have to process an additional 5 million visa applications, which would require hiring and training hundreds of additional officers.

"As a manager, I can't really justify hiring so many more people," she said, adding that 68 percent of all U.S. visitors come from visa waiver countries, such as Canada, Great Britain, Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

The visa waiver issue is one of the first serious problems to emerge with new immigration policies that Congress passed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Most countries will not meet the deadline, which requires passports to be issued with biometric facial recognition data. Japan and Britain say they will comply in late 2005, and other countries say they will not comply until at least a year after that, Harty said.

Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary of homeland security for border and transportation security, said a deadline extension "could be well-justified."

"If it is not extended, then you're going to have millions of additional visa requests that have to be processed by our State Department consular offices," Hutchinson said, adding that Homeland Security officials are meeting with lawmakers on the issue.

Hutchinson said the requirement presents a challenge to visa waiver countries and U.S. immigration officials who have to review passports. For example, it is not clear if countries will use varying kinds of biometric data on their passports or follow a single international standard. If data does differ, then each U.S. port of entry might need several different passport reader systems.

"It would be a huge expense for us to have multiple different types of readers at all the different ports for all the different countries," Hutchinson said.

"There is a logical argument that there needs to be more time to carefully refine the international standards for those biometrics," he said. "We're going to work with Congress as to what the solution is to this very difficult problem for us and for our international partners."

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