Millions Enter U.S. On Visa Waivers

Millions Enter U.S. On Visa Waivers

POSTED: 9:44 am CST November 20, 2006
UPDATED: 10:04 am CST November 20, 2006

HOUSTON — Note: The following story is a verbatim transcript of an Investigators story that aired on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2006, on KPRC Local 2 at 10 p.m.

Tonight, Local 2 investigates serious gaps in our border security. Our country's visa waiver program was intended to speed up the flow of tourism and business with friendly foreign nations.

But KPRC Local 2 investigative reporter Robert Arnold reports there are growing concerns this program can be exploited by both terrorists and criminals.

Inspector: “Hello ma'am. Welcome to the United States.”

Last year more than 15 million people traveled into the United States with few questions asked.

Inspector: “What's your final destination today?”

That's because 27 foreign countries enjoy what's called visa waiver status. This means residents of these countries can enter the U.S. without obtaining a visa, as long as they're here for 90 days or less.

David Adler, former CIA officer: “It's just created giant loopholes in our border security.”

That's because allowing foreign travelers to bypass the visa process greatly reduces the amount of scrutiny they face. The first time they face any questions is when they hit U.S. soil at a checkpoint.

Inspector: “How long do you plan on staying?”

Local 2 Investigates uncovered a recent government report showing terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui and so-called shoe bomber Richard Reid both got into the U.S. by using stolen passports from visa waiver countries.

Robert Arnold, Local 2: “These are not new concerns. We've uncovered reports from four years ago highlighting the exact same problems. In 2004, members of the Senate suggested a moratorium on the program until the problems were fixed. All of that fell by the wayside and the same problems persist today.”

The government report shows the Department of Homeland Security isn't adequately monitoring security concerns in visa waiver countries, and checkpoint inspectors don't always get necessary information about lost, stolen or fraudulent passports.

For example, Interpol keeps a database of millions of passports reported as lost or stolen from around the world. But the report finds not all of our inspectors have access to this database at the time they're deciding whether to let someone into our country.

Steven Scoffield, Customs and Border Protection: “Interpol is a tool that we use, but it's not the only tool. We have our own field liaison officers at the consulates and the embassies.”

Steven Schoffield is a chief inspector at Bush Intercontinental Airport. He argues inspectors do get constant updates on lost, stolen or phony passports.

Inspector: “Can I get your left index finger? Press it down.”

Schoffield also says technology has made it easier to spot people using stolen or phony travel documents. But is it enough?

David Adler, former CIA officer: “Most inspectors have only a few seconds to determine not only if the document is authentic, but also if the person poses any kind of terrorist threat or criminal threat.”

Government reports agree, showing agents are getting less and less specialized training in how to spot phony documents. That's because checkpoint agents are forced to learn how to be immigration, customs and agriculture inspectors all at once.

Schoffield: “So, it's at least less than one-third.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas: “It's clear to me that we're playing catch-up from many, many years of neglect.”

Texas Sen. John Cornyn sits on the committee overseeing visa waivers. He admits there's just not enough money to properly safeguard the program.

Cornyn: “I think at this point all we can do is hope and pray.”

Adler: “We are stuck with the worst of both worlds in that it's not well run, and it's going to be difficult to get rid of.”

Difficult to get rid of because stopping the visa waiver program would cause a slow-down in the amount of international tourism and business dollars spent in the U.S. — a step no one in Congress is willing to take.

Also, Sen. Cornyn tells us there probably won't be enough money in the federal budget to properly safeguard this program until at least 2008.

Last year alone, more than 15 million people traveled to the U.S. from visa waiver countries. Less than 1 percent of those travelers were denied access.

Department of Homeland Security officials also report they have no idea how many of those travelers may have gotten into the U.S. using stolen or phony passport from visa waiver countries.