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The US-VISIT Program

Written by Henry J. Chang

Background

On January 5, 2004, the first phase of US-VISIT ("United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology") became operational at 14 seaports and 115 airports across the United States. Each nonimmigrant visa holder entering at one of these ports will undergo the standard inspection process and simultaneously will be processed through the US-VISIT system.

Expansion of the program at airports and seaports is expected to continue throughout 2004. Unless Congress delays its implementation, the Department of Homeland Security ("DHS") will be required to expand the entry/exit program to the top 50 high traffic land border ports by December 31, 2004, and the remaining ports of entry by December 31, 2005.

US-VISIT uses scanning equipment to collect biometric identifiers, such as inkless fingerprints along with a digital photograph of the visitor. Together with the standard information gathered from a visitor about their identity and travel, the new program will verify the visitor's identity and compliance with visa and immigration policies. At exit points, visitors will check out at kiosks by scanning their visa or passport and repeating the inkless fingerprinting process. The exit confirmation will be added to the visitor's travel records to demonstrate compliance with the entry/exit requirements.

In conjunction with US-VISIT, all consular posts abroad will also be required to issue biometric visas by October 26, 2004. Two digital index finger prints and a photo will be taken of visa applicants, and their information will be checked against the Automated Biometric Identification System ("IDENT") database.

General Registration Requirements

Who Must Register

According to DHS, US-VISIT will apply only to nonimmigrant visa holders.

Under the current law and regulations, Canadians not required to have a visa upon entering the United States will not be included in US-VISIT. However, Canadian citizens who seek admission in a classification requiring a visa will be required to enroll in US-VISIT. For example, a Canadian citizen seeking entry as an E-1/E-2 will be subject to US-VISIT.

Until September 30, 2004, aliens who were exempt from visa requirements under the Visa Waiver Program ("VWP") were also not included in US-VISIT. However, as of September 30, 2004, VWP participants also have to comply with US-VISIT notwithstanding the fact that they are not entering with visas.

The following visa categories are exempt from enrollment in US-VISIT: (a) A-1, (b) A-2, (c) C-3 (except for attendants, servants or personal employees of accredited officials), (d) G-1, (e) G-2, (f) G-3, (g) G-4, (h) NATO-1, (i) NATO-2, (j) NATO-3, (k) NATO-4, (l) NATO-5, and (m) NATO-6. However, if an individual who initially entered the U.S. in an exempt status is no longer in such status on his or her date of departure, the departure requirements of US-VISIT would apply.

Children under the age of 14 and persons over the age of 79 on the date of admission are exempt from US-VISIT, as are classes of aliens the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Secretary of State jointly agree to exempt. The Secretary of Homeland Security, the Secretary of State or the Director of Central Intelligence may also exempt an individual alien.

DHS has not developed a final policy for the treatment of Mexican laser visa holders under US-VISIT. It may consider enrolling laser visa holders in US-VISIT only if the applicant requires an I-94. (e.g. if the laser visa holder is staying in the U.S. for longer than 72 hours or going beyond the 25-mile limit from the border or the 75-mile limit in Arizona.) Other options include: checking the biometric laser visa database maintained by the Department of State against IDENT and then transferring the information into the US-VISIT database; or exempting all Mexican laser visa holders from the enrollment process.

Lawful permanent residents and United States citizens will be exempt from US-VISIT also.

Entry Under US-VISIT

There are two ways visa holders will get enrolled into US-VISIT: (a) at a consular post, or (b) at a port of entry. Each of these scenarios is discussed below:

At Consulates

Enrollment at the consular post takes place during the processing of the biometric visa. Both a digital photo and inkless fingerprints of two index fingers will be taken and the biometric information will be checked through and recorded in the IDENT biometric database at the time of enrollment. Currently, only selected consular posts are issuing biometric visas. However, the State Department is required to begin issuance of these these visas at all 211 consular posts by October 26, 2004.

At the Ports of Entry

US-VISIT will be implemented in phases at ports-of-entry. During the first phase of US-VISIT, nonimmigrant visa holders will be enrolled in US-VISIT only if they enter the United States through an air or seaport that has US-VISIT capability. As of January 5, 2004, US-VISIT will only process entries of visa holders at 115 airports and 14 seaports nationwide. At these air and seaports, US-VISIT is incorporated into the primary inspections booth. The Consular Consolidated Database ("CCD") is also available at primary inspections so that visual comparisons with the visa page are possible.

The first time DHS enrolls a traveler into US-VISIT at a port-of-entry, the following will occur:

  1. The individual's travel documents will be scanned;
  2. A digital photo and inkless fingerprints of both index fingers will be taken; and
  3. The individualís name with be checked against the Interagency Border Inspection Service ("IBIS") database and the wants and warrants section of the National Crime Information Center ("NCIC") database (both of these checks are text checks, not biometric checks).

IBIS contains certain terrorist watch list information from the TIPOFF database maintained by the Department of State.

After a visa holder is enrolled in US-VISIT, he or she will still have to provide fingerprints and have a digital photograph taken upon each entry to the U.S.

Departure Under US-VISIT

Visa holders must document their departure from the United States with US-VISIT only if they depart the United States through an air or seaport that has US-VISIT exit capability. As of January 5, 2004, US-VISIT will have exit capability at the Baltimore-Washington airport in Baltimore, Maryland and at the Miami seaport. However, DHS plans to expand the US-VISIT exit capabilities to other ports of entry throughout 2004.

The exit stations for US-VISIT are self-service kiosks. DHS has indicated that the kiosks will be located within the secure area of the air and seaports. DHS will consider exit registration mandatory for visa holders who depart from an air or seaport with US-VISIT exit capability. According to DHS, entry-exit information is constantly updated, and if a visitor overstays his or her permitted period of status, US-VISIT will record the failure to depart.

Status of NSEERS After Implementation of US-VISIT

Special registration ("NSEERS") at ports of entry will continue even after the launch of US-VISIT. The registration for NSEERS and enrollment for US-VISIT will continue to be separate until US-VISIT incorporates NSEERS. However, incorporation is not anticipated until US-VISIT is fully developed.

Persons subjected to call-in or POE special registration must still register their departure with NSEERS and must leave the United States through a designated port of departure. According to preliminary reports, if US-VISIT has an operational exit kiosk at the port and an individual has already registered his or her departure at that airport through NSEERS, the visa holder will not be obligated to document his or her departure under US-VISIT. In other words, an alien subject to NSEERS is not supposed to be subject to US-VISIT departure requirements as well. However, this has not been confirmed yet. Until this occurs, it might be prudent to comply with both NSEERS and US-VISIT.

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