WASHINGTON – Countries whose citizens can enter the United States without a visa will get an extra year to provide tamperproof passports under legislation approved by the Senate and sent to President Bush for his signature.
The legislation, passed by voice vote late Thursday before Congress left for its summer recess, also gives U.S. ports of entry a year longer to install equipment and software capable of processing machine-readable entry and exit documents that contain biometric identifiers (search).
Congress voted in 2002, after the Sept. 11 attacks (search), to require the biometric passports that will enable officials to match a person's unique physical characteristics with a digital image in his or her passport or travel documents. The measure applied to visitors from 27 countries, mostly in Europe, that participate in a visa waiver program with the United States.
But last March Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search) recommended at two-year extension beyond the Oct. 26, 2004, deadline for issuing the new biometric passports.
They said countries need time to solve technical problems such as chip durability and to resolve privacy questions. They said without the extension millions of visas would have to be issued in countries whose citizens now can visit the United States without visas, overwhelming U.S. consular offices.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., sponsor of the legislation, said many countries are making progress toward developing the new passports, and he agreed to a one-year extension.
He said more than 10 million visitors enter the United States every year from countries participating in the visa waiver program established with nations whose citizens were thought to pose little security threat or risk of overstaying the 90-day limit. The House passed the bill in June.
Twenty-two of the visa waiver countries are in Europe. The others are Australia, Brunei, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore.