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Feds aim to speed up U.S. entry process

Rice, Chertoff also tout technological advances in border security

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says improving the entry system will encourage international business.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Top Bush administration officials said Tuesday that technological advances will strengthen U.S. borders and help speed up the time it takes for visitors to enter the country.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said U.S. agencies will create travel documents "that can protect personal identity and expedite secure travel."

Among those improvements will be biometric passports for U.S. citizens and travel cards for people who live along the borders and who regularly cross back and forth, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

Generally, citizens of Mexico and Canada do not need passports but must show identification to travel to the United States for short-term visits.

He said the machine-readable documents also will protect travelers against identity theft and make life harder for people who try to use forged documents.

By 2007 the United States exclusively will use passports that contain biometric information, Chertoff said.

In addition, Rice said the government will allow foreign companies and international customers of U.S. businesses to enroll online in an expedited-visa program.

"Public-private partnerships such as these are essential, and we will create more of these in the future," she said.

Some of the technology already is in place, officials said.

Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the State Department has made visa processing more transparent and predictable, Rice said.

At present, 97 percent of approved travelers receive their visas within a day or two, she said, where some waits used to last 75 days or longer.

"We're taking new steps to welcome a greater number of foreign visitors to the United States than ever before," Rice said.

She said visa processing will begin to incorporate "cutting-edge technology" such as videoconferencing to reduce the need for in-person interviews.

Encouraging people to pursue studies in the United States is a priority, Rice said, noting that international students soon will be able to enter the country 45 days before they begin school -- 15 days earlier than allowed now.

The number of students who received visas during the past year increased by nearly 9 percent, she said.

Chertoff said the changes represent an attempt to strengthen border security while "keeping the welcome mat out for those who want to travel from overseas."

Toward that end, federal authorities expect to begin issuing "a new, inexpensive, secure travel card" to be used by people who live along the borders and who regularly travel between countries. Chertoff called the changes "an opportunity to transform our border management, decrease wait times at ports of entry and allow us to focus on that minority of people who pose a threat."

He said the new cards will contain biometric information so that border agents "can verify a person's identity, protect against identity theft and make it difficult for forgers or impostors."

One senior administration official said the need for a uniform card is underscored by the fact that border officials currently see some 8,000 types of identity documents.

The Canadian government has argued that its nationals should not need to carry travel cards and should be given special consideration. U.S. officials said they are in consultations with the Canadian government about the issue.

In addition, all passports issued by the U.S. government will be machine-readable by the end of the year.

Among other anticipated changes in the works is a paperless visa process, he said.

He acknowledged that the system could contain errors and said planners are working on a redress process to correct those.

"We need to make sure we are giving travelers a simple way to address them and get them fixed," he said.

Also in the works is a "terrorist screening center" intended to coordinate watch list information among federal agencies.

"Intelligence has repeatedly confirmed that such innovations have shaken the confidence of terrorists that they can readily enter the United States," the Department of Homeland Security said in a news release detailing the anticipated changes.

And a "human smuggling and trafficking center" would cull through databases of "smugglers, traffickers and terrorist travel facilitators," the release said.

The information collected by federal authorities will be shared "with like-minded foreign governments," the release added.

Daniel M. Kowalski, editor in chief of Bender's Immigration Bulletin, said he applauds the measures but questions whether they would improve security.

Terrorists could foil any system either by crossing the border illegally or by using people with no criminal history to obtain valid documents to pass through security, Kowalski said.

"It's ludicrous to suggest that our physical borders can be sealed," he said.

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