WASHINGTON – The House voted Monday to delay for one year the deadline for 27 countries to provide their citizens with tamperproof passports that can be read by machine.
The voice vote responds to complaints, mostly from European nations with visa waiver agreements with the United States, that they will be unable to meet the Oct. 26, 2004, deadline for issuing the new biometric passports.
It also challenges administrative assertions that other countries need an extra two years to overcome technology problems such as chip durability and resolve privacy questions.
Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search) said in March that without a two-year extension, millions of new visas would have to be issued in countries whose citizens currently do not need visas to visit the United States. They said U.S. consular offices in the affected countries would be overwhelmed.
On the U.S. side, State Department consular affairs spokesman Stuart Patt said last month that technical standards are being developed for the passports and the machines that can read them. He said biometric U.S. passports are not likely to be ready until the end of 2005.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (search), R-Wis., the bill's sponsor, said many countries under the visa waiver program, such as Belgium, are making significant progress toward biometric passports. He said Austria, Denmark and Slovenia have developed working prototypes.
Congress voted in 2002 to require the biometric passports that will enable officials to match a person's unique characteristics with the digital image in the passports or travel documents.
Sensenbrenner 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 program has come under reconsideration since the Sept. 11 attacks and the recognition that terrorists could use the passports of visa waiver countries, sometimes counterfeited, to gain access to the United States.
In April the government announced that a program that would require foreigners to be fingerprinted and photographed before entering this country would be expanded to include visitors from the 27 countries. Those changes will take effect Sept. 30.
Twenty-two of the visa waiver countries are in Europe. The others are Australia, Brunei, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore.
The bill must still be taken up by the Senate.