DHS Secretary On Visa Waiver Program Changes

During a roundtable with reporters from select visa waiver program countries, DHS Chertoff said, "For tourists who are going to be using the program, they must register online with the Electronic System of Travel Authorization."

Read the Text Below:

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
Contact 202-282-8010
Washington, D.C.

Secretary Chertoff: All right. Well, I’m planning next week to be able to visit six of the seven new countries that will be admitted to the Visa Waiver Program in the middle of November, not necessarily -- I know I’m going to start in the Czech Republic. I think the trip details are finally being nailed down, but it’s going to be the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. I will not unfortunately be able to make it over to South Korea. They, of course, -- South Korea, of course, will also be in the program.

We’re delighted that we’ve been able to achieve this milestone. I know the people of these nations, which have very strong ties to the United States, have long been waiting for admission to the Visa Waiver Program and the way we’ve designed the program going forward allows us to admit the additional seven new members at the same time that we’ve raised the security levels for everybody in the program, both the new members and the pre-existing members. So it’s a benefit both in terms of expansion but also in terms of increased security and that’s good for everybody.

It’s also a way of reinforcing and celebrating the freedoms which the new members enjoy which are part of the progress, I think, of the human side towards democracy abroad, so a good way to celebrate that, and I look forward to sharing in the celebration with the six new countries in Europe who are currently in the program.

One thing I think is very important to emphasize for people -- of course, first of all, business travelers and students still can get visas like everybody else does. For tourists who are going to be using the program, they must register online with the Electronic System of Travel Authorization. It’s available in a number of languages -- I think 12 or 13 languages. You can access it through a travel agency. You can do it directly online. I’ll get you the IP address so you can print it.

What would be unfortunate -- it would be someone who tries to get on a plane thinking they don’t need a visa and didn’t bother to register because that person might find themselves on a return flight. So please get the message out. So we’ve got two or three weeks ahead of us. It’s a very fast program for most people and it’s a matter of within a very short period of time, we’ll get the okay. There are, of course, a very small number of people who do have an issue that arises and the good news for them is they’ll find out about the issue before they leave rather than at the airport here in the United States. So it behooves everybody to get on the ESTA program.

So with that, I’m ready to take questions.

Question: Secretary, when is the date for the travel?

Secretary Chertoff: Have we announced the actual date of the first travel?

Moderator: I don’t think so.

Secretary Chertoff: I think we’ll probably be announcing it next week. It’ll be after the middle of November. It will not be before. It will not be before November 15th but it will be some time later in November.

Question: So my question is also to describe -- so could you confirm that it will be on November 17th?

Secretary Chertoff: I don’t --

Question: So as you saying, the informed Slovakian countries now, are you waiting till this time or if there will be --

Secretary Chertoff: I think -- I think it -- I don’t want to give you an exact date yet. We’re not ready yet. So I think it will be -- it will be in the vicinity of November 17th, around then, but I don’t want to give you a precise date. We’re not ready to announce it yet. But it will be -- it will not be before November 15th, but it will occur during the month of November. So you’ve got a couple weeks of -- you know, we’ll nail it down.

Question: Will you actually announce it officially in Europe because -- and is that --

Secretary Chertoff: I believe it will be -- I hope that we’ll announce the actual date in Europe.

Question: Will it be the same date for all countries?

Secretary Chertoff: Yes, everybody will be -- for every country, it will be the same date. Every -- every country in this group of seven, it will be as of that same date.

Question: Secretary, the Hungarian heads of state, the president, (inaudible), or not.

Secretary Chertoff: Well, of course, we signed an agreement and based on the agreements we’ve signed, Hungary is admitted to the Visa Waiver Program and obviously then we presume that whatever internal legal steps need to be taken to comply with the agreement will be complied with.

Question: Do they have any chance to check the system before it will be switched on?

Secretary Chertoff: Oh, we’ve been checking it. We’ve been using the system for weeks now and that’s how -- we have thousands of people who’ve actually registered and it will be open as of next week, it will be opened generally to the new countries that are coming in, but we’ve done some testing.

Question: Because there was a G8 report which somehow doubted whether the whole system is ready.

Secretary Chertoff: For example, it said we only had it in one language and that’s untrue. We have it in about a dozen languages. So, you know, as is often the case with some of these reports, the information is collected months earlier and, of course, in the intervening period of time, we had that run. So it has been tested. We’ve had thousands of people using it and registering on it and it will be open generally next week.

Question: Can you describe the monitoring system in a bit more detail? What do we have to do and not do in order to not get kicked out of the program?

Secretary Chertoff: Well, it’s just -- it’s no different than we’ve always had in terms of the -- you mean the individual person? The information we get on the electronic system is exactly the same information that we used to get on the airplane on a written form. So it’s not going to change the standards for getting somebody in. A person who doesn’t get in under ESTA would not have gotten in under the old program. The only difference is under ESTA, you’ll know in advance if there’s a problem and need to go to the embassy and see if you can clear it up. Under the old system, you arrived at the airport after a 12-hour flight and you learned that you weren’t getting into the country and you had to go back. So I think that’s better for the travelers.

Question: And on the country level, how do you monitor that the country still meets all the requirements?

Secretary Chertoff: Well, we do periodic reviews which we do for every country in the program, and if a problem arises at the time of review, when the time for review comes, if it’s not rectified, then the country could lose its status. That’s never happened to my knowledge. Every country’s always managed to pass the review.

Question: I had also another question for the system. It’s mentioned it’s being tested. It’s already testified and my question is for the traveler that wants to enter the United States for the first time, maybe they want to reach their dream and they don’t know to speak English, for example, under the current system, they can fill the application in their own language, and under this new system, is it their own language or what?

Secretary Chertoff: The questions are in different languages. I believe that you have to answer the questions in English, but the nature of the questions, most of them look like your name. It’s not going to make a difference in the addresses and things like that sort of information. So it should not be a problem.

If someone does have difficulty, they need to get a little bit of assistance maybe from a travel agent, but I think the questions will be in multiple languages.

Question: Thank you.

Question: If I may, a lot of people are saying this is just another way of getting a visa. They are kind of doubtful that this is a real change. What would you say?

Secretary Chertoff: Well, it is a huge change because a big challenge with a visa is you have to wait a year and this eliminates the need for an interview, except for those people where there’s a problem.

Question: What about those countries that aren’t European countries, are they -- you know, it actually created quite a lot of even arguments in the European Union because the other countries don’t like that very much and they don’t like the system either because it means tightening rules for them. Would you agree with that?

Secretary Chertoff: Well, first of all, the rule will be consistent. In other words, by the middle of January, everybody, whether they’re a new admittance or a previous admittance, everybody’s going to be under the same system, treating everybody equally under the program.

It doesn’t require more information than before. I’m baffled at the criticisms and I think most of the criticisms are coming from people who don’t understand what we’re doing. This is exactly the same information we’ve always required. It’s not like we’re asking for anything new. Why would there be resistance in the 21st Century to say we shouldn’t do it online, we should only do it by hand, so you can look at it at the last moment? I don’t really understand the objection to that.

The value to us from the security standpoint is by having it earlier, we have more time to analyze it and that means we can keep out people who we don’t want to have in the United States and I can’t imagine anybody objecting to that. Why would we want to -- why would any country want to have a criminal come into the U.S. or a terrorist come into the U.S.? So I’m -- I’m still waiting to hear the objection that actually, you know, is persuasive.

Question: One more question. I’ve been hearing this for some time and hearing this argument for a long, long time, coming from the side of the United States Government that this is a matter of design because it requires a change in the law, et. cetera, et. cetera, and then two years ago, there seems to have come a change and all of a sudden, once the administration became very actively involved, it -- well, it still is a matter for the Congress, of course, but the change came only after kind of more welcoming, let’s say, imposition on the side of the administration.

What was the -- what was the tipping point? Was there --

Secretary Chertoff: You know, we -- we knew there was a long -- first of all, it is Congress’s decision and Congress has to pass the law. We looked at the fact, on one hand, that there was a desire to bring additional countries into this. These are friendly countries and there’s no reason that we should be treating them differently, unless, you know, there’s some security purpose.

We recognize that in this day and age, you know, the original system was focused on illegal migration, that really the system we’re concerned with now, the high priority is terrorism and safety. So we looked at the opportunity to actually achieve two goals. One was to broaden the program and answer a long-held desire. The other was to upgrade security generally through this electronic system which was modeled to some degree on what the Australians have done successfully over a period of years.

Actually, we looked at the Australian system and we kind of said this is a real opportunity to achieve two things at the same time: upgrade security generally and also then, once we’ve upgraded the security, that makes it easier to make the case in Congress that we ought to be adding additional countries.

So it was the convergence of two objectives that allowed us, I think, to make a more persuasive case to Congress.

Question: On the street level, a lot of people inside Europe, to my knowledge, are saying look at the (inaudible). They’ve been very good allies of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ve been willing supporters of the efforts of the United States. Now they aren’t getting in.

Secretary Chertoff: Well, we’d love to bring them in. I mean, one of the legal standards, though, requires the visa refusal rate to drop below 10 percent and they’re not quite there yet. You know, there’s always a line-drawing problem. We hope that they will soon get below 10 percent and then, of course, the other elements get met and they would come in.

Also, once we get US-VISIT Exit up, which I hope we can do next year, although some in the travel industry oppose it, the airline industry opposes it, that will give us actually an alternative way to administer the program because we’ll have -- we’ll be able to compare the entry and exit data biometrically. So, you know, again that will be -- increase the opportunity, but in the end, there are certain standards and there’s always a line that’s drawn and the pole is moving in the right direction, but they haven’t quite made that legal requirement.

Question: And are you afraid in any way it will be much tougher for them to get in because the visa waiver enlargement still have quite problems in Congress? Diane Feinstein recently --

Secretary Chertoff: Well, there are people who don’t like the Visa Waiver Program and I think the law that is in place now, I believe, satisfies most of the objections of the critics, but I do think it’s important to emphasize there are people who have criticized the security measures and say, well, why do you need all the security measures, and I can -- and maybe people who believe that the next administration will drop the security measures.

I can pretty much guarantee you that’s not going to happen because there are people, as you point out, who already are hostile to the Visa Waiver Program and if there was an effort to dilute or weaken the security, I’m quite confident that the balance would tip the other way. You would start to see a movement to abolish it.

So the security measures are important for us in terms of the value of the program and I think that people in Europe should understand that it’s because of the security measures we’ve been able to get members of Congress who were skeptical to go along with this expansion and, by the way, this is not a partisan issue, as you pointed out. We have Democrats and Republicans who have the same questions. So I think we, the expression is, have threaded the needle here through a combination of security and expansion that has allowed us to put together a broad base of support, but if you were to remove the security elements, I think there would then be probably a change in attitude and that’s one of the reasons why I think Europeans should welcome the security because it has been one of the reasons we can accomplish this.

Question: Mr. Secretary, did you say that you’re going to announce the first one next week?

Secretary Chertoff: I think the date of effectiveness, the actual date will be next week.

Question: When? What country are you going to first?

Secretary Chertoff: I think I said probably, not definitely, probably when we’re in the Czech Republic.

Question: Okay. And my question is, if this electronic travel authorization is already fully operational, -- yes?

Secretary Chertoff: Yes, it’s fully operational.

Question: And what about that -- you will be able to verify the departure of those leaving the country?

Secretary Chertoff: Well, we do that now based on the names on the passenger manifests. What we’re hoping to do next year, although this will have to be the next administration that finishes the task, is to actually get a fingerprint on the way out that we can match against the fingerprint that we currently take on the way in.

Question: From January maybe or later?

Secretary Chertoff: It would have to be from -- probably the earliest would be next summer in 2009.

Question: Mr. Secretary, I have a question. Could you tell us of the visa refusal rate for the last year?

Secretary Chertoff: I don’t remember. I can get that to you. All the countries are at or below 10 percent.

Question: I understand that.

Secretary Chertoff: I don’t know off the top of my head. Do we have it? No, that’s different. We’ll get it for you.

Question: Why is the refusal rate for Poland so high, and is it more because of the illegal immigration issue?

Secretary Chertoff: Yeah. It’s illegal immigration. The --

Question: And how far up is crime there in the serious issues?

Secretary Chertoff: Well, the visa refusal rate has -- I would say the vast majority, not all, the vast majority of the visa refusals are based on illegal immigration. It’s based on the State Department’s judgment about whether an applicant is really going to go back home again or they’re going to stay.

So I would not say that the high refusal rate means there’s more criminals in that country. It just may mean that the economic background of the people who are traveling leads to greater suspicion that people may actually be intending to stay and work, but ESTA is focused not -- you know, obviously we’ll continue to be attentive to the illegal immigration issue, but the ESTA particularly allows us to look at the security and the agreements we put into effect with the countries, lost and stolen passports, exchange of information about terrorists and criminals, that’s directly aimed at making sure that criminals and terrorists do not come into the United States.

Question: But with the current system, you don’t know the over-stay rate?

Secretary Chertoff: We do know what the over-stay rate is. I just don’t happen to have it in my head right now, but we’ll get it for you. It’s published.

Question: I don’t mean the refusal rate but over-stay rate.

Secretary Chertoff: Oh, I think we actually do know what the over-stay rates are approximately.

Question: Could you please explain (inaudible)?

Secretary Chertoff: No, it’s not traffic accidents. I think it’s generally what we would consider to be a series criminal offense, like a robbery, murder, drug dealing, something of that sort. Traffic, you know, speeding tickets are not disqualifying people. Fraud might, yes. Somebody committing fraud, that might disqualify them, if they were convicted of fraud.

We would ask people have they been convicted of a crime and that is a disqualifying issue.

Question: The Washington Post had a story this morning explaining that your department, DHS, will take over responsibility regarding checking air passenger data.

Secretary Chertoff: That’s different. That has to do with foreigners coming into the U.S. The program that was discussed yesterday has to do with everybody who gets on an airplane, whether they’re Americans or non-Americans, whether they travel to the U.S. from overseas or whether they travel from Europe to California. So they’re totally different programs, although we will be able to, with people traveling from overseas, to coordinate between what TSA, Customs and Border do.

Question: So who will be responsible for my -- you know, if I show up at the airport, who is responsible for that?

Secretary Chertoff: Customs. If you show up with -- well, that’s an interesting question, and I think this is -- where the airline has to pay for your trip back? I think at this point, it may not be the airline. We’re working to coordinate with the airlines as we synchronize with their advanced passenger system. So -- but whoever pays for it, if you come without the ESTA, chances are you’re going to be headed back. So come with the ESTA.

Question: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned that the advantage of the visa before. Is there actually a guarantee that I will actually --

Secretary Chertoff: No, no. Because if you come and there’s something about the way you answer a question or the way you behave that raises an issue, the Border guard always has the ability to tell you not to -- you know, to refuse admission. That’s true with visas. People come with visas and they do something or they answer a question in a way that raises suspicion and they can be denied entry.

So I want to be clear. It’s not a guarantee, but it reduces substantially the risk that you’re going to be refused on the spot.

Question: It would be a good occasion if you could describe step by step who will be responsible for what? It will be on me as a traveler to go to ESTA.

Secretary Chertoff: It will be on you as a traveler to get on the system. You’ll then be notified of approval electronically. I advise people to print out a copy of that so they carry it with you. Get on the airplane. We’re hoping that the -- I have to say this. This may take a little bit more time. The air carriers themselves will ask to make sure you have a visa or an ESTA.

Then when you get to the United States, we will have a record on our system that you are approved, but again just in case something happens, it’s good to have your own copy and then you’ll go through the ordinary, you know, present to the immigration official and they’ll question you and, you know, do whatever they normally do and then assuming there’s no issue there, you’ll proceed through Customs and --

Question: And it will be 72 hours ahead of --

Secretary Chertoff: That is what we recommend. Now, if you do it -- if an emergency comes up, we can deal with an emergency, but it may cause a little bit of delay on our end.

Question: Mr. Secretary, I don’t want to dwell too much on this, but I’ve had some trouble finding out what if I travel to Canada on this exit visa where I don’t need a visa and when I cross the border on land, is it, I mean, proof, watertight?

Secretary Chertoff: If you are Czech and you are in Canada and you come to the U.S. and you don’t have ESTA, you’re going to have a problem getting in.

Question: But all the border controls will have the access to it and it will be the same procedure like at all the airports, right?

Secretary Chertoff: Yes. And by the way, you know, the ESTA is good for, I think, two years, right?

Moderator: Mm-hmm.

Secretary Chertoff: So, you know, if you’re thinking of going -- if you might be coming to the U.S. in the next two years, we urge people to apply early and then once you have it, it’s good for two years and so, you know, you don’t have to worry about it while you’re going to Canada and the U.S.

Question: I also have a question. Some people may be also thinking of questions after entering the Visa Waiver Program and the visas are also still early. Do they also still fill this out?

Secretary Chertoff: That’s an interesting question. You could still come in with your visa? The answer is you probably could. If your visa’s out, you probably could still come in, but my recommendation would be enroll in the program with ESTA.

Question: Despite the visa?

Secretary Chertoff: Yeah. It only takes a few minutes and, you know, if I wanted to be safe, I would enroll in the ESTA.

Question: A couple months ago, there was a breach into information about Barack Obama, passport information of Barack Obama and Condoleezza Rice. Can you guarantee that the information which people will be giving away will be safe here?

Secretary Chertoff: You know, it’s like -- again, I want to emphasize this. The same information we’ve always gathered, we’re going to safeguard it in the way we always have. It’s held in secured data and it’s restricted in terms of people getting into it and if someone misbehaves, as apparently happens in the State Department a couple months ago, they get punished. I think it’s actually a crime. So, you know, we do have strong sanctions for people who misuse the information.

But again, I want to emphasize this is exactly the same information people have always been providing. That’s why I’m baffled by some of the criticisms because it’s not like we’re saying give us like new information. This is the same information we’ve always had. It’s just in a different form. So why -- why is there a greater risk? It’d be like saying we can handwrite the information but we can’t type it or you have to use a stylus and wax rather than a pen. It’s silly. It’s a better technology, but it’s the same information.

Question: But if it’s the same information, does it matter for the security interests because you mentioned several times pushing the case through Congress?

Secretary Chertoff: Because we get it earlier. Having it -- having it days in advance gives us the opportunity to analyze it in a way that we can’t when we’re presented with it as you come off the plane.

Question: So at this time, would you catch Richard Reed before he gets on the airplane?

Secretary Chertoff: Oh, I think we probably -- yeah. We’d have a much better chance of catching Richard Reed.

Question: Mr. Secretary, my question is so the next week, you will announce the date when the new --

Secretary Chertoff: Probably, probably.

Question: -- countries will enter the program? You will announce in Prague?

Secretary Chertoff: Probably.

Question: It will be the same day for all the countries?

Secretary Chertoff: It will be --

Question: So Prague will be the first city?

Secretary Chertoff: Probably, yes. I’ll just keep repeating the same announcement over and over again. I think I’m going to be in Prague Monday. I’m flying over Sunday, be there Monday.

Question: As a father of three small kids, why didn’t you have questions for kids? You have discussions about genocide, things like that.

Secretary Chertoff: Yeah. You know, here’s the problem. You get into an issue. I mean, you have to draw a line somewhere and, I mean, by law, we treat children the same as adults and try and get that law changed. It’s probably not worth it balanced against the relatively small inconvenience of saying no, it’s not a good deal for the kids.

Question: Yeah. I’m not quite sure I understood the question. Yeah. I was wondering whether I could ask why did I have you answer the questions, whether I’m intending the attack federal authorities and whether I’ve been trained as an explosive expert? Why?

Secretary Chertoff: It’s pretty obvious we would like to know if you’ve --

Question: Yeah. But, I mean, if I were a terrorist, I would know what to answer.

Secretary Chertoff: Here’s what the answer is, and this is from my own experience. Sometimes we catch someone in the country who was a terrorist and because they have lied on the form, they’ve now committed a form, so we can arrest them. So it gives us an ability if someone does sneak in and lie, it’s not only an ability to stop them in the first place, but if somehow they lie and get in, we now have a more powerful sanction because we actually send them to jail for five years or more and we’ve used that, to be honest with you, in finding people in the United States who have -- who we discovered after the fact are dangerous and we go back and we look at their forms and if they lied potentially on the form, that gives us a basis to prosecute them.

Question: It’s easier for legal reasons, --

Secretary Chertoff:Yeah.

Question: -- I mean, to detain them?

Secretary Chertoff: Correct.

Question:Okay.

Secretary Chertoff: Because then we catch them in their crime.

Question: How close is your cooperation with intelligence agencies in Eastern Europe and what are the main issues and problems there?

Secretary Chertoff: I think generally, I would say we’ve had very good cooperation with all the authorities in Eastern Europe and that’s one of the reasons we were able to move so quickly once the law changed to get the countries signed on. So we have very good relationships.

Question: Can you describe the success in generalities?

Secretary Chertoff: Probably not. But I do think we -- information exchange is always important and we have a good relationship.

Moderator: A couple more questions.

Question: The question is, after entering the new countries into the Visa Waiver Program, will the United States be educating also the old European countries?

Secretary Chertoff: Yes, the old country -- I shouldn’t say old.

Question: Will you be pushing them into this?

Secretary Chertoff: Yeah. The pre-existing countries will be also coming to the electronic program and I believe mid-January is the date that they have to begin to do that.

Question: Thank you.

Question: Are there any still issues between Homeland Security and the pre-existing countries?

Secretary Chertoff: Yeah. I mean, my counterparts understand, I think there are some people in Europe who frankly view any change as something they don’t like. As I’ve emphasized over and over again, it’s the same information, better technology. You know, there’s always some in Europe who believe that who we admit to the United States is a matter of negotiation. It’s not. Like everybody else, if I invite you into my house, I get to decide who comes in and who doesn’t come in. In my house, when someone wants to come in, they don’t get to bargain with me about coming in. I make a decision.

As we say in the English legal tradition, every person’s home is their own castle. So for the United States, we set down standards, but we have tried to work with the EU to reassure people by giving them visibility into what we’re doing that this is the same information we’ve always collected, handled in the same way we’ve always handled it, and the only difference is we’re using a 21st Century tool as opposed to a 20th Century tool.

Question: Let me ask about Greece. It is because of (inaudible)?

Secretary Chertoff: No, we’ve been unable to reach an agreement in which Greece has subscribed to the same requirements that everybody else has. So if and when Greece is ready to do -- enter into the same agreements on information-sharing and other things that we’ve done with everybody else, they can be eligible, but we’re not -- what we’re not going to do is give one country a lesser requirement than the other countries.

The key here is equal treatment. We’re treating every country, pre-existing and new, on the same footing. We’re not going to have two classes of visa waiver countries. It’s going to be everybody in the same -- on the same level.

Moderator: Last question.

Question: The Korean Embassy has said since Mr. President said he can fix everything, is it a misunderstanding?

Secretary Chertoff: I think he -- I read what the president said. I don’t think -- I think he said about because we weren’t quite ready to give the exact date. So I think I’ve narrowed it down. It’s not going to be before November 15th and it will be in the month of November, but I’m going to announce the exact date soon.

Question: The first 15 days.

Secretary Chertoff: Pardon? I’ve given you a pretty small window. I don’t want to give you the exact date. All right.

Moderator: Thank you very much.

Secretary Chertoff: Thank you very much.

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