Visitor Tracking Technology Faces Obstacles
Visitor Tracking Technology Faces Obstacles
The State Department on September 24 announced that the machine-readable passport requirement for visa waiver countries – set to take effect on October 1, 2003 – has been postponed until October 24, 2004. The one-year extension has been granted to all but six of the 27 countries on the grounds that the foreign governments would not be able to meet the initial deadline, largely due to a lack of resources and limited advance notice. Machine-readable passports, in addition to containing personal information about the traveler in the form of computer microchips, will include biometric identifiers such as fingerprints and facial features. Although the Bush administration views the technologically advanced passports as vital to increased national security, business leaders had cautioned against the original timetable due to fears of a dampening effect on tourism. Both the administration and the private sector have welcomed the extension.
California Governor Gray Davis on September 5 signed into law a bill, SB60, allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for and obtain a driver's license. The new law will take effect January 1, 2004. Opponents had argued that the bill would undermine U.S. immigration policy and implicitly reward those who come into the country illegally, while proponents asserted that it would increase road safety by encouraging undocumented immigrants to enroll in driver-training courses and buy car insurance. For their part, state officials maintain that the federal government is responsible for controlling illegal immigration flows. Since 1994, proof of legal status has been required before obtaining a license. This change may affect an estimated two million undocumented California residents. Currently, 18 states permit undocumented immigrants living within their borders to obtain a driver's license.
This legislation has sparked a national debate about the reliability of licenses as identification documents, and highlighted national security concerns along the border. As a result of the California decision, the Department of Homeland Security is reviewing border-crossing policies that allow immigration officers to accept a driver's license as proof of U.S. citizenship. Department officials are currently considering the idea of requiring a passport for re-entry into the United States.
Several recent events, including congressional criticism, reduced funding, and a series of critical studies, have challenged the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) new entry/exit system. The United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT), slated to begin its first phase of operation as a flexible automated system by January 1, 2004, has been funded by Congress at $330 million for FY2004, $150 million less than the Bush administration requested. Lawmakers are alleging a lack of proper accounting for FY2003 funds ($380 million) as the cause for the decrease. A September 19 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) aroused further concern, calling US-VISIT "a very risky endeavor." The report cites a failure to assess life cycle costs or conduct a cost/benefit analysis. Additional findings include the need for an accountable governance structure and deficient program management. Other GAO reports released in September address ongoing challenges in aviation security and DHS information-sharing. Many policy analysts believe that given these shortcomings, the January 1, 2004 deadline for fingerprinting and photographing all travelers at air and seaports seems unrealistic and problematic both for immigration officials and foreign visitors. (See May 2003 and June 2003 Policy Beats for more information on US-VISIT.)
By allowing legislation to expire, Congress has opted to permit the annual cap for H-1B visa holders (temporary high-skilled foreign workers) to drop from 195,000 to 65,000. The change will take effect October 1, as will the elimination of a $1,000 fee that had been levied on H-1B visa applicants to fund the training of American workers. The H-1B program was established under the Immigration Act of 1990 with an original cap of 65,000. After reaching and at times exceeding the numerical limit, Congress twice enacted legislation to raise the cap – first in 1998 to 115,000 and again in 2000 to 195,000. Due to recent economic decline and higher unemployment rates, employment opportunities for many specialists such as information and communication technologists, engineers, professors, and researchers have been affected adversely. As a consequence, many groups have welcomed the drop in high-skilled foreign admissions. Technology firms, on the other hand, continue to express concerns that the lowered cap on foreign worker admissions will negatively affect their productivity, innovation, and overall competitiveness. (See July 2003 Policy Beat and November 2002 Spotlight for more information on H-1Bs).
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) on September 15 announced the appointment of Alfonso Aguilar as the new head of its Office of Citizenship. Aguilar's primary responsibilities at CIS, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security formerly referred to as the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, are to promote instruction and training on citizenship. In addition to the appointment, CIS has reported plans to unveil a new citizenship oath in the coming months. The intent is to modernize the oath's language and make the ceremony more meaningful for participants. Comments from a diverse range of individuals and organizations were sent in response to CIS's first attempt at rewriting the oath, encouraging officials to make further revisions. Immigrant advocacy groups have expressed approval for the new bureau's efforts to overhaul citizenship services.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on September 3 announced that 30 Burundi nationals with temporary protected status (TPS) had been granted a one-year extension due to continued armed conflict in their home country. Approximately 525 Sudanese nationals received a one-year extension of TPS the following day, due to persistent civil unrest in Sudan. DHS has announced that it has terminated temporary protected status for nationals of Sierra Leone, effective May 3, 2004. The affected 2,700 nationals are expected either to acquire another legal status or return to their home country by that time. TPS is designed for foreign nationals residing in the United States whose nations are facing or recuperating from devastating natural disasters, internal conflict, or other exceptional conditions. TPS ensures protection from removal (deportation) and validates employment verification for the protected group members. (Click here for a complete chart on TPS countries in the U.S.).