Press Releases

Senator Feinstein Expresses Concern About Bush Administration’s Expansion of Visa Waiver Program Amid Security Risks

–Requirements to fully implement security measures have not been met, yet expansion of visa waiver program continues–

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Homeland Security, today again urged the Department of Homeland Security to meet security requirements before admitting new countries into visa waiver program. 

Under current law, the Department of Homeland Security cannot admit new countries into the visa waiver program unless it can verify the departure of 97 percent of foreign travelers leaving U.S. airports. DHS also must have in place a fully operational electronic travel authorization system, which requires every visa waiver traveler to provide their biographical information three days before they can board a plane to the United States.   

Today, DHS certified that it has fulfilled these security requirements. However, although DHS requires passengers to comply with the electronic system by January 12, 2009, the agency won’t be able to verify that the travelers have registered with the program by the deadline.  

In addition, DHS has only tracked 97 percent of individuals who exit through U.S. airports, not whether 97 percent of individuals who entered at U.S. airports actually left the country.  

Following is the text of the letter sent by Senator Feinstein to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff: 

November 13, 2008

Secretary Michael Chertoff
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Nebraska Avenue Center, N.W.
Washington, D.C.  20528 

Dear Secretary Chertoff: 

I am writing to express my concern with the Administration’s expansion of the visa waiver program and the deficient certification of the security measures required prior to program expansion.  While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has today “certified” that it has met the statutory requirements to implement a fully operational pre-departure electronic travel authorization system and to verify the departure of 97% of visa waiver program travelers leaving U.S. airports, these requirements have not in fact been met.   

In your letter, DHS states that the electronic travel authorization system (ESTA) is fully operational.  However, while DHS has required that all passengers comply with ESTA by January 12, 2009, there will be not be a system in place to verify that these travelers have in fact registered with ESTA by this deadline.  Without the verification that travelers have registered their biographical data under ESTA, this system cannot be certified as fully operational. 

Additionally, as your certification letter explains, DHS has sought to certify the departure of visa waiver travelers by comparing “outbound air manifest data” to prior records to calculate a departure rate.  This certification does not meet the security requirement to track visa waiver program travelers, as it only certifies that DHS has tracked 97% of individuals who exit through U.S. airports, not whether 97% of individuals who entered at airports actually left. 

The statutory requirements “certified” today by the Administration are critical to our national security and were imposed by Congress as a result of September 11th.  By failing to fully implement these security measures prior to expanding the visa waiver program, the Administration is undermining the security of the American people in a post-9/11 world. 

I urge the Administration to truly mitigate the program risks by fully implementing the statutory requirements prior to admitting new countries into the visa waiver program.  I appreciate your consideration of these views and I look forward to your response.                        

Best regards. 

Sincerely yours,                                               

Dianne Feinstein
United States Senator