June 14 Letter to extend the VWP biomtric deadline
TO THE MEMBERS OF THE U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES:
On behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, I urge you to vote in support of H.R. 4417, which would extend the deadline for biometric identifiers in foreign passports. The Visa Waiver Program is extremely important for the conduct of international business and the travel and tourism industry, representing 13 million visitors a year, and $66 billion in spending in our economy. Although the countries in the Visa Waiver Program are committed to incorporating biometrics into their passports, the technical challenges involved and the length of the process of developing international standards will prevent most from meeting the current October 2004 deadline. Millions of travelers would then be forced to apply for visas through our already overburdened consulates and embassies in the affected countries, creating, by the State Department's own estimates, an impossible workload, untold backlogs, and endless delays. The practical result would be that countless travelers will simply forego travel to the United States, adversely impacting our still recovering economy.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the world's largest business federation, representing more than 3 million businesses. The Chamber's federation includes state and local chambers throughout the United States and 96 American Chambers of Commerce overseas. The Chamber's membership also includes businesses and organizations of every size and in every sector of the economy. Chamber members with interest in the Visa Waiver Program include companies and organizations in the travel and tourism industries, companies that do business with international customers and clients, and multinational companies. The Chamber has long been supportive of the Visa Waiver Program, since it facilitates the majority of visits to the United States for business and for tourism, and just under half of all nonimmigrant admissions in all categories.
According to Department of Homeland Security data on inspections, 80% of Visa Waiver travelers come from six nations, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands—some of our principal trading partners. The government of Japan has informed the Chamber that it will not be able to begin issuing biometric passports to its citizens until sometime in 2005. Our members have heard similarly from the United Kingdom, and, as Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge stated in their March 17 letter to Judiciary Chairman Sensenbrenner, "We believe none of the VWP countries will produce biometric passports by the deadline in sufficient numbers to meet the legitimate needs of their traveling nationals." It should be noted that although the U.S. is not under statutory obligation to issue biometric passports, it is working toward that goal, and, according to the Department of State, the United States will not complete the transition to biometrically-embedded passports until the end of 2005, at the earliest.
The Department of Homeland Security has already announced plans to enroll Visa Waiver travelers in the US-VISIT system, collecting a biometric finger scan and digital photograph, in the next few months. This will provide additional security while the biometric passports are developed. However, failure to extend this deadline now, with adequate advance notice to travelers, who may make travel plans months in advance, could have a severe impact. The State Department has said it would be unable to meet the expected 5 to 8 million additional visa applications that would ensue and because it can take several months to obtain visas in some countries, many persons potentially affected by this deadline will begin to make those applications in the coming months. In addition, there will be potentially many more travelers who will simply choose not to travel to the U.S. at all, costing our economy. Further, the countries in the Visa Waiver Program represent some of our strongest trading partners. Failure to extend the deadline will strain many of those relationships.
Due to the critical importance of this issue to the business community, the Chamber will consider including votes on, or related to, H.R. 4417 as Key Votes in our annual How They Voted rankings.
R. Bruce Josten