DHS unveils foreign-passenger screening system

The Homeland Security Department has unveiled the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), a passenger-screening application that travelers from Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries will be required to use as of Jan. 12, 2009.

ESTA's technological core is a database search that compares the information a traveler enters online to several law enforcement and intelligence databases. Most of the databases are intended to pinpoint individuals who could present security risks by their association with or history of militant activities; their criminal associations; or the risk of overstaying their visas for economic migration.

Public reaction to the program, which will be introduced in stages in the summer and early fall, was muted. But some experts noted that DHS and its travel technology partner, the State Department, should help foreigners understand the system and be prepared for procedural glitches.

ESTA will mesh with the existing visa-waiver policy. That international agreement generally states that participating countries will admit travelers from other specified countries without extensive documentation ' i.e., visas ' on the assumption that those countries don't represent a source of economic migration or other problematic visitors.

The United States grants visa-waiver status to wealthy countries in western Europe, Asia, Africa and elsewhere whose travelers do not represent an overstay or terrorism risk.

Before September 2001, VWP travelers entered the United States with minimal checking. However, after the terrorist attacks, DHS and State officials became aware that militants and other criminals sought to use citizens of VWP countries in their attacks. At least one of the 2001 conspirators was a citizen of France.

The Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 mandated ESTA. The law sets certain requirements that DHS must meet before expanding VWP. Advocates of expanding the list of countries that can send their travelers here without time-consuming immigration and security reviews include the tourism industry, corporations and universities ' all of which rely on foreign visitors.

ESTA offers the benefit of automating and speeding most DHS data checking, which begins when officials learn that a foreigner from a visa-waiver country is coming to the United States.

DHS and State officials are urging travelers from participating countries to submit their ESTA applications online at least 72 hours before leaving for the United States.

Previously, such travelers filled out I-94W forms while on board the aircraft or ships bringing them here, and the biographical information they provided triggered the database searches.

Within minutes of a would-be traveler entering data, ESTA is designed to generate a response such as travel approved, travel permission denied or travel application pending.

Automating the process should reduce the time and cost of clearing travelers through immigration.

The risks and downsides of adopting ESTA mainly fall in the policy realm. VWP partners have chafed at some of the U.S. government's anti-terrorist travel restrictions, including those related to VWP. Privacy issues related to maintaining data for 12 years after a traveler enters the country and requiring children to be cleared through ESTA could prompt disputes.

From a technological perspective, ESTA's cost and efficiency benefits will be weighed against two factors: the efforts of wrongdoers to evade the screening ' for example, by identity theft ' and problems with the government's databases of undesirable travelers. The Government Accountability Office, among other audit agencies, has enumerated thousands of flawed entries in those databases.

Some foreign news sources, including the French wire service Agence France-Presse, characterized ESTA as a new stumbling block for travelers and pointed to the recommendation from DHS and State that travelers apply 72 hours before departure. However, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff stated that immigration officers would be available to process travel permits for people facing sudden changes in plans.

A more nuanced view of the technology's effect on the travel process came from the National Business Travel Association in Alexandria, Va. The organization praised the technology, saying that the new system will enable more countries to join VWP. But the trade association also urged DHS and State to be prepared for the likelihood that travelers will not register in advance and some will need to appeal the rejection of their travel plans.

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