Aug 08 2008

New U.S. “exit permit” scheme for visitors goes into effect

The Identity Project filed comments today with the DHS Bureau of Customs and Border Protection CBP) in opposition to the new Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) which went into effect this week.  According to our comments:

The essence of the ESTA rule is to require certain foreign citizens to obtain an exit permit from the United States government before they may leave their own country, or leave other countries.

In this rulemaking, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is promulgating an interim final rule imposing a new requirement that “each nonimmigrant alien intending to travel by air or sea to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) must … prior to embarking on a carrier for travel to the United States”, (a) provide specified data elements, in specified form and manner, to the CBP, and (b) “receive a travel authorization, which is a positive determination of eligibility to travel to the United States under the VWP, via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), from CBP.”

Under the interim final rule, “[a]n authorization under ESTA is not a determination that the alien is admissible to the United States” and is “not a determination of visa eligibility.” It would be granted, or not granted, by the CBP, in its sole, standardless, secret, and non-reviewable “discretion.” It would be required as a pre-condition for foreign citizens to “embark” from foreign countries if the CBP believes that they intend to apply (at some later time ) for admission to the U.S. under the VWP.

The Identity Project submits these comments because this CBP regulatory requirement that foreign citizens obtain permission from the U.S. in order to leave their own country, or a third country, (1) exceeds the statutory authority of the CBP; (2) exceeds the jurisdiction of the CBP; (3) is contrary to the obligations of the U.S. under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other international human rights, maritime, and aviation treaties; (4) has been promulgated without complying with the procedural requirements of Executive Order 13107 regarding Implementation of Human Rights Treaties, the Airline Deregulation Act, the Regulatory Flexibility Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act; (5) fails to consider or grossly underestimates many of the major costs of the rule, including its impact on small entities, business travelers, and other travelers; (6) is impermissibly vague, and (7) would be so impractical and unenforceable as to deprive it of any of the benefits claimed by the CBP.

The Identity Project urges the CBP to withdraw the interim final rule, in its entirety. If it does not withdraw the ESTA rule entirely, the CBP must complete the actions directed by Executive Order 13107, prepare the statutorily required analyses, publish them in a full Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) , and provide a new opportunity for public comment, before finalizing any ESTA rule.

In their comments, airlines and travel agencies have objected that the CBP is “wrong” to implement the ESTA on an emergency basis, without the public notice and opportunity for public comment normally required for new Federal regulations.  But the CBP began accepting “voluntary” applications for travel authorizations, through a (still buggy) Web interface.  The CBP says they plan to issue an order later this year to make the ESTA system mandatory starting sometime in January 2009.

Countries that participate in the VWP, mainly in Western Europe, are still considering whether it amounts to a de facto visa requirement for their citixzens to visit the U.S.  This could prompt them to reciprocate by ending visa-free entry to their countries for U.S. visitors, and requiring U.S. visitors to apply for permission before embarking for Europe.