WASHINGTON – The U.S. government will no longer treat foreign visitors harshly just because they stayed too long on previous trips, a Homeland Security official said Thursday.
Foreigners allowed to enter the country on passports — those from 27 so-called visa waiver (search) countries — won't be handcuffed, searched or denied entry if they stayed a few days longer than they should have on an earlier visit, said Robert Bonner, Customs and Border Protection (search) commissioner.
"They were treated as criminals," Bonner said.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks (search), foreigners who had stayed longer than allowed have been denied re-entry and taken into custody if a return flight to their home country was not immediately available. The treatment has caused some outrage and negative publicity abroad, particularly in Britain.
The new policy restores some discretionary authority to inspectors that had been stripped after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Inspectors at major airports and other ports of entry will be allowed to decide whether the visitor is a security or public threat or plans to settle in the country illegally. If not, the officers can allow the visitor to enter the country for up to 90 days. For future visits, the traveler must have a visa.
Bonner said some visitors stay longer in the United States than allowed for good reasons, such as visiting a sick relative or being injured and ending up in the hospital. Others miscalculate when they should leave, an agency spokeswoman said. An estimated 35 to 40 percent of the illegal immigrant population is made up of people who overstayed.
"We can make judgments and exercise discretion to do something other than deny entry for minor technical violation of immigration laws and still do our priority mission and that is preventing terrorists from entering the United States," Bonner said. "One does not come at the cost of the other."
Customs and Border Protection did not immediately know how many people the new policy would affect. Between Oct. 1 and June 1, 11 million visa-waiver travelers were admitted to the United States and 6,500 were denied entry. Figures on how many of those denied entry had previously stayed too long were not immediately available.