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U.S. Relaxes Entry Rules for Select Travelers

The change applies to visitors from visa-waiver countries who have common infractions. It also returns discretion to inspectors at airports.

August 13, 2004|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Visitors entering the United States from select countries will no longer risk being handcuffed and treated as criminals for minor immigration irregularities, the Bush administration said Thursday.

The change applies to an estimated 15 million travelers annually from 27 European and Pacific Rim countries whose citizens do not need a visa to enter the United States for personal or business trips of up to 90 days.

Officials said the friendlier face at the border would be a step toward restoring balance to an immigration system that went from too permissive before the Sept. 11 attacks to overly prohibitive in the last three years -- damaging the reputation of the U.S. abroad.

"It's enough that it can really give the United States a black eye," said Robert C. Bonner, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, who instituted the new policy.

Each year, about 10,000 travelers from the visa-waiver countries are denied entry on arrival, many because of technicalities stemming from earlier visits and some because of security or law-enforcement concerns. All face the prospect of spending a night in jail unless a flight home can be immediately arranged.

Under the new directive, travelers will still be turned away if they pose a security risk, have a criminal record or are judged likely to remain as illegal immigrants.

But they can be allowed in if the only problem is a previous technical violation of immigration rules. A common infraction that can now be resolved involves having stayed beyond 90 days during a previous U.S. visit. Often, the visitors are unaware that they had immigration infractions on their records.

The change was overdue, said Richard Webster of the Travel Industry Assn. of America, a trade group in Washington.

"After Sept. 11, we were told by the government there would be 'zero tolerance,' but nothing was communicated to international travelers about what that would mean," he said.

Bonner said he had heard too many horror stories about the treatment of guileless foreigners arriving at U.S. airports.

Los Angeles International Airport, New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and Miami International Airport became hubs for hard-luck cases under the tougher policy. In some cases, travelers had overstayed their previous visit because they had become ill and had to be hospitalized. In others, a business deal had taken longer than expected to complete.

"The consequences for someone who had a prior brief overstay were grossly disproportionate to the minor technical violation," Bonner said. "Typically, these individuals were handcuffed -- behind the back -- and also subject to a pat-down search. In other words, they were treated as criminals."

The new policy will return decision-making power to immigration and customs inspectors at the airports, allowing them to make exceptions in cases where leniency is warranted. The government had stripped that discretion after the Sept. 11 attacks. Bonner called that a "meat ax" approach.

"You're excluding [foreign visitors] that anybody in their right mind knows pose no threat whatsoever," he said. "Our own people know they pose no threat whatsoever, and they'd like to be able to say ... 'let's not treat them like criminals.' "

Individuals will not be allowed more than one exception, and they will be informed that subsequent trips to the United States will require a visa.

The changes mirror an exception granted this year for visiting foreign journalists. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the government began enforcing a rule that required reporters to obtain a visa before entering the country. The jailing of British journalist Elena Lappin in Los Angeles this year led to an outcry that prompted authorities to relent.

Despite the changes, some travelers who pose no security risk will still have to be returned to their countries in cases where border inspectors do not have legal authority to grant exceptions. But Bonner said U.S. authorities would try to avoid the use of handcuffs. He said his agency would seek authorization from Congress to expand the range of exceptions.

Officials said the new rules affect travelers from Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Britain.

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