By Ray O’Hanlon
The visa waiver program has survived opposition to its existence that surfaced in the just-concluded congressional debate on U.S. border security.
Ireland is one of 21 countries whose citizens can visit the U.S. without first obtaining a visa at the U.S. Embassy.
Opposition to the program, which has applied to Ireland since 1994, fizzled last week as the House of Representatives voted by an overwhelming margin in favor of a bill that will tighten border security while beefing up the application of immigration laws at U.S. ports of entry.
The House bill, H.R. 3525, matched a companion bill passed by the Senate in April. President Bush was due to sign the agreed bill as the Echo went to press Tuesday.
While the visa waiver program came through both the Senate and House votes intact, the new legislation does signal changes in how people traveling from Ireland can expect to be processed as they enter the U.S in the years ahead.
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The bill will mean that any U.S. visas or other travel documents issued after Oct. 26, 2004 will have to be tamper resistant, machine readable and possess certain standardized “biometric identifiers.”
Similarly, Irish passports issued after that date will also have to be tamper resistant, machine readable and include the biometric identifiers such as fingerprints or retina scans.
Irish passports with a few years to go before expiration on that date will still be acceptable to the U.S. authorities as valid travel documents.
Gerry Kelly of the Irish Embassy in Washington said that the Irish government was moving toward the new kind of passports anyway. as it was required to do once Ireland was included in the visa waiver program.
“It’s the road everybody is going down and Ireland is well advanced in working toward the new requirements,” Kelly said.
Just exactly what kind of biometric identifiers will be required will be formulated by international agreement and based on the findings of the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization.
Another potentially critical aspect to the new legislation is as yet unclear but it could have potentially profound implications for anyone who is undocumented, who intends to overstay the allowed time for a visit to America or simply ends up overstaying without having originally intended to do so.
Under the new legislation, the Immigration and Naturalization service must implement what the bill describes as “an integrated entry and exit data system (for nationals of countries other than Canada) containing arrival and departure data from these documents.”
It is as yet unclear if the proposed “data system” means an end to the I-94 departure card, a small passport-sized document that is stapled to an individual’s passport as he or she passes through U.S. immigration.
Loss of the I-94 makes it more difficult for an overstaying individual’s departure from the U.S. to be tracked by the INS.
A computer-based data system, however, could mean that the individual’s due departure date is recorded at point of entry while failure to depart on that date is similarly recorded in the data base, thus designating the individual as being automatically out of status.