Thursday, 30 September 2004

US-VISIT tracking extended to all except USA and Canadian citizens

Effective today, the US-VISIT program of fingerprinting, photographing, and compilation of lifetime travel dossiers on visitors to the USA will be extended to everyone crossing the borders of the USA except for citizens of the USA and Canada.

When the US-VISIT program went into effect at the start of this year, citizens from selected First World countries (mostly in Europe, and almost all with predominantly white-skinned populations) making short tourist visits under the USA “Visa Waiver Program” (VWP) were exempted. That exemption has now expired.

When the law authorizing US-VISIT was passed, the intent was ton ensure that all international visitors would be fingerprinted and photographed, either when they applied for passports (which would contain digitally-encoded biometric data such as fingerprints and/or iris scans of the unique patterns of blood vessels in the eye) or on arrival and departure to and from the USA. The exemption from US-VISIT of entrants under the WVP was originally linked to a requirement that they have machine-readable biometric passports.

No country, including the USA, has yet begun issuing passports containing machine-readable biometric data. (That’s another story for a future article.) Under heavy pressure both from governments of countries included in the VWP, and from those interest groups in the USA that support making it easier for foreigners to come here, spend their money here, and contribute in other ways to the USA (yes, there really are such groups, mainly in inbound international tourism, education, and trade), Congress extended the deadline for VWP participants to have biometric passports until October 2005, but only on condition that in the meantime they be fingerprinted, photographed, and “enrolled in US-VISIT” (i.e., that a lifetime travel dossier be opened for each of them), on arrival at the port of entry to the USA.

The US-VISIT program has received overwhelmingly negative publicity and criticism around the world, although only Brazil has come close to reciprocal treatment of visitors from the USA. Brazil is fingerprinting and photographing USA citizens on arrival. But there is no evidence that Brazil has even tried to digitize all the information or compile it into the “biographic and biometric travel histories” created for each visitor under US-VISIT. And while Brazil requires visas for tourists from the USA, and charges the same US$100 for a visa that Brazilians are charged for visas to the USA, USA citizens can obtain Brazilian visas by mail, without the need for the personal appearance and application interview at a consulate or embassy required of applicants for visas to the USA — a particular burden for would-be visitors from remote parts of countries as large as Brazil.

Privacy International awarded US-VISIT a 2004 UK Big Brother Award as “Lifetime Menace” to UK citizens, and condemned it in a report this week as, “The gold standard in privacy invasion”.

Within the USA, objections have been raised to some degree by civil liberties organizations, but much more loudly by those suffering the economic effects of US-VISIT on reduced visitorship to the USA, and expecting further effects with its extension today to VWP visitors.

Among those negatively affected by US-VISIT:

  • States along the Mexican border that profit from border trade, especially Texas
  • States that profit from foreign tourists (so few people in the USA have passports, or use them, that foreigners spend billions of dollars more each year in the USA than Americans spend overseas), especially Hawaii and Florida
  • USA states and colonies (e.g. Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands) getting fewer visits from cruise ship passengers who now have to pay US$100 for a visa, and be fingerprinted and photographed on leaving and again on returning to the ship, for even the briefest port call
  • Schools, colleges, and universities at all levels, from private English-language and technical training schools to the most elite universities, whose would-be students can’t get visas to study here and who have difficulty hiring faculty from abroad. (If Harvard can’t get visas for its professors and students, imagine what it’s like for less influential educational institutions.)
  • Airlines and airports (especially American Airlines and the international airports in Miami, New York, and Los Angeles) that had rpovded transit services and transportation via the USA for travellers between Latin America and Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. For citizens of other countries, it’s now worth paying at least US$100 more, in each direction, for direct flights or flights via e.g. Canada, to avoid the USA transit visa fees.
  • Convention and meeting venues and service businesses suffering from the shift of meetings with international participants to cheaper, more officially welcoming Canada.

As I’ve often noted, citizens of the USA remain the world’s biggest benficiaries of non-reciprocal visa-free entry privileges. If your a citizen of the USA, and you want to preserve your privilege to travel (internationally, travel is generally not considered a right), you need to let Congress know that your ability to travel aborad will, in the long run, be dependent on the official welcome that the USA extends to visitors from abroad — and their money.

Link | Posted by Edward on Thursday, 30 September 2004, 09:59 ( 9:59 AM)

I think a lot of Americans don't even know this
is happening. Personally, I'd like to see a
*lot* more countries, like Brazil, implement
reciprocal procedures for US citizens. Then
maybe the message would start getting through.

Posted by: Anon Y. Mouse, 1 October 2004, 00:25 (12:25 AM)

" few Americans have passports ..." I hear this so often, but with all sorts of crazy percentages. What is seldom mentioned is that U.S. citizens can visit Canada, Caribbean nations, Mexico and many other Latin American countries, and a couple of small Pacific island states without a passport. Not a great idea if you're on a long-haul trip or planning to live there, etc., but just for a vacation, it's not necessary. Hmmm ... a lot of these places must consider the US tourist dollar pretty valuable. I never explained this to a European without seeing a jaw drop.

You might not see too many Americans in your travels. I think short vacations explain a lot. But when you look at the entry figures for foreign countries (look in the tourist authority/office sites. Also associations like PATA), Americans are usually ranked very high. Maybe they're on package tours. Maybe they're in the home country, visiting relatives. At any rate, facts often contradict prejudices.

If you had ever lived in a Third World country, I think you would understand why the US--and all the richer European nations, Australia, Canada and Japan--put up a lot more barriers to entry than the poor ones do. (And if it's your usual Third World corrupt country, the embassies have to do a lot more work because it's so easy to get a passport--for a criminal or a trafficked person from another country.) You see, a lot of foreigners from poor countries slip in and overstay and work illegally and so on and so forth. I thought this was one of the thrusts of the 9/11 report: the US immigration system is/was a sieve. Actually, much more of a sieve than those of most European countries. I guess you don't get around much, but I can't tell you how many people I've met on travels who have worked in the US illegally, sometimes for years at a time. Sometimes poor people, sometimes Irish, Israelis, Aussies, loads of Brits. Probably the lack of a national system of ID cards makes it a lot easier.

The US and Canada have an extra reason to be extra careful about screening for student visas and tourist visas: if a woman overstays and has a baby ... the baby is automatically eligible for citizenship--And for all sorts of other stuff .. like the right to free education until the age of 18 and so on. Then at 18, the child can sponsor a parent. This right is extremely rare outside of the Americas. In fact, it's extremely common-- in Japan, for example--to have people born for generations in the country and yet be stateless. Eligible to be deported. I guess you don't know much about Muslims in Germany and France.

In the run-up to 1997 in Hong Kong, I knew about a half dozen women who went to the US to have babies or made sure they had a baby while living there. In one case, a grad student (who had a baby herself there) had her pregnant sister come in at five months, sort of sneak in, overstay her visa ... But jeez, they were British subjects, with (albeit low-grade) British passports, shouldn't the Brits have extended some protection? Some kind of permanent semi-citizenship?

Which brings up your wrong and insulting description of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as colonies. How can a so-called world traveler be so ignorant of the meaning of "colony"? Colonial wars and colonial struggles and colonial injustice were rather large issues throughout the 20th century and many people from former colonies would be very hurt and insulted that you didn't understand what there wars and struggles were about. And the humiliations of being colonized.

To start's very important that you understand what "self-determination" means. Many people died for this right. Hong Kong people, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Indonesians, Africans ... they all call can tell you what this term means (and all the Asians know that the Filipinos got to choose, so why couldn't they?) Puerto Ricans have voted several times for their current status as a commonwealth; they have their reasons--no income tax, for one--who are you to judge them? The most recent time was in the past decade or so when more than 95 percent (sorry, this is from memory, maybe it was 96 percent) voted for it. Another 4 percent or so wanted statehood. And the remaining percentage wanted independence.

Do you think Hong Kong people (see ... "citizens" was never accurate, [as is true of 3rd geneation Koreans in Japan.]"Subjects" technically correct, but Hong Kong Chinese and Indians hated it so ...) ever had a chance to choose whether they wanted independence or commonwealthhood or SAR-hood in China? Do you think they got the choice of British citizenship or even "right of entry" before the 1997 handover? Do you think political parties were legal (not until Tiananmen)? Do you think they had one-person one-vote elected legislature? Chose their own governor? How about unions (the first thing the "unions" there will tell you is that they're not unions because they don't have the right to collective bargaining)? Which is why there isn't a minimum wage? Do you think the average Hong Kong Chinese person could, like, just visit England whenever he or she wanted without jumping through hoops to get a visa? Do you think they could automatically work there (just like white descendents of Brits from many countries could)? Do you think HK spouses and widows and widowers of bona fide British citizens could just enter Britain whenever they wanted?

No wait a minute ... maybe you do think that Puerto Ricans and Virgin Islanders can't come to the mainland whenever they want? And stay! Really, they can! And they can work! And vote for president and live anywhere! Wait a minute--you must think their governor is appointed by .. a queen or something? Anybody working for any entity of the US government, including a school, can feel free to favor statehood or whatever for PR or the Virgin Island without losing his or her job! Really! So can Puerto Rican and VI students on the mainland! Honest, they don't be deported back home. Do you think that was true in Hong Kong or colonial Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Kenya, etc., etc.? Do you think you could run ads or form associations promoting such ideas? As a pre-1997 HK TV guy explained to me once: "We can't run any public service ads that suggest that the govenment should be changed." That meant the British govenment, mind you.

Despite all this, the colonial reins were quite loose in HK by the end, but perhaps this will help you imagine what it was like they they were really tight.

Do you have any idea how long Puerto Ricans have been citizens? Why don't you look it up? Perhaps all these points sound like hair-splitting, minor privileges. If so, I'd suggest that you have a giant hole in your head where a couple of hundred years of world history should be lodged. And how could someone so ignorant of history and so cavalier about facts be any kind of decent writer?

Posted by: Real citizen, 1 October 2004, 11:37 (11:37 AM)

I won't attempt to respond point-by-point to the previous comment, but it does contain a few particularly key factual errors:

(1)The commenter claims that, "when you look at the entry figures for foreign countries ...Americans are usually ranked very high." I have looked at these figures in great detail, and this simply isn't true: per capita visitorship from Canada to many countries in Asia and Africa is an order of magnitude greater than from the USA, for example.

(2) Contrary to the commenter's claim, Puerto Ricans cannot vote for electors for President of the USA, and have no voting representation in Congress. Puerto Rico has one non-voting "delegate" to the House of Representatives. The same applies to the "U.S." Virgin Islands, "American" Samoa, and Guam. (The District of Columbia does have limited representation in the electroal college, but only a non-voting delegatein the House.) Historically, Puerto Ricans were made citizens of the USA in order to make them subject to the military draft and the income tax, and to give a veneer of legitimacy to their continued second-class status.

(3)The commenter refers to my "wrong and insulting description of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as colonies." I stand by my characterization of both places as colonies. Equally importantly, I don't consider it "insulting" to people in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, or anywhere else that their territory has been, or is, colonized by foreign pwers. It is people in the 50 states of the USA who should be, if not insulted, at least embarassed to still be maintaining colonial possessions, denied the vote for their sovereign, as far afield as Puerto Rico, Guam, and Samoa. When I was born in 1960, most of the world's people and land area was colonized. To say that is, I think, to honor and respect that global majority and its history, not to insult it.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 1 October 2004, 16:01 ( 4:01 PM)

So, what happens if you turn up at the fingerprint machine with your fingerprints sanded off?

Are you in the same category as double-hand amputatees? Or are you a terrorist who gets sent home?

Posted by: Jason King, 18 October 2004, 22:10 (10:10 PM)

I suppose it all comes down to the customers--or in this case the individual tourists--who vote with their money.

Personally, I will not visit Brazil while these travel restrictions are in place. I've heard plenty of horror stories and frankly there are many friendlier places to visit that WANT American tourists. Two years ago I visited Canada. Last summer I visited Japan. This fall, Mexico. Next summer it will be Thailand. The fact of the matter is, without the restrictions, one of these trips WOULD have been to Brazil.

Posted by: Visitor, 25 September 2005, 12:03 (12:03 PM)

I applied today September 2005 for a TRANSIT
VISA..because I have to travel to England (by American Airlines) in
Your person in charge rejected my application.

I brought all the documents indicated in your web page and more that
she did not want to see... and just rejected this.

So I want to complaint because in your web page you don't say that to
apply to a transit visa is going to be as difficult as a more important
visa.... you don't say that people should bring many proofs that you
have big bank accunts.... you just say: the form, the payment of 100
US, the passport, the photo.... and SUGGEST t bring some ther documents
to prove enough means....

I didn't have any other problem with my last passport, and I traveled
before to the USA before, to Japan, to England twice... without any
problem but now your PERSON ON CHARGE rejected my
application to be in the airport sme hours on October...

I asked her if I could bring more documents to have this application
aproved but she didn't help me at all.
I wanted to show her my tickets to go and return, and some other
documents to prove my links with La Paz- Bolivia. But she was just a
non-helping person.

THEIR WEB PAGE that to get the transit visa is going to be AS DIFFICULT

Otherwise THE UNITED STATES EMBASSY IS just misleading the people
who had the mistake of buying a ticket to travel by AMERICAN AIRLINES.

This was my mistake and I regret this already.


A sad and angry Bolivian

Posted by: bolivian, 26 September 2005, 08:24 ( 8:24 AM)
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