Travel and Migration Borders on New Technology

Spotlight on Fellow Reynold Koslowski

Jan 05, 2004

Americans may find themselves getting fingerprinted for passports in the near future, says Rey Koslowski, a Wilson Center fellow who is researching the relationship between technology and international migration.

Border security and visa entry are evolving rapidly. By October 2004, Koslowski said, the United States will accept only visas that contain biometric information, likely a digital photo and two fingerprints. But for European Union nations and other countries that fall under the visa-waiver program, the United States requires only a machine-readable passport for entry. Therefore, Koslowski said, some forms of biometrics likely will be built into every passport, and this technology currently is in development. Since travel policy is reciprocal, other nations are expected to set the same standards for Americans traveling abroad.

These new requirements are costly and many countries have not yet complied with upgrading to machine-readable passports, let alone adding a biometric component. Will countries be able to meet these requirements? Will countries be able to integrate this technology into existing systems? How well will the U.S. Department of Homeland Security adapt to the new system?

Koslowski pointed out that the 9/11 hijackers, most of whom were Saudis, received their visas through a travel agency and never had exit interviews. Since 9/11, U.S. travel and migration restrictions have tightened. But, as new information technologies are implemented, how can the United States and other governments balance citizens' rights with national security?

"I predict that this tension will continue," Koslowski said. "From a homeland security perspective, [it's a matter of] risk management. The Department [of Homeland Security] is aware that we cannot shut down borders. That would be self-defeating and the terrorists would win...An overreaction to September 11 could lead to more economic damage. The question is how to strike a balance between facilitating travel and migration while filtering out the threats."

Since 9/11, a tremendous amount of material has become available on border security. Koslowski has gathered information from congressional hearings on visa policy, government reports, testimonies from the Chamber of Commerce, interviews, articles on biometrics, and from statistics officers in embassies. He also has spoken with American university officials, who empathize with the need for security but, at the same time, are losing foreign students due to recent, tougher visa policies.

While some potential students are choosing to do their research outside the United States, so are many foreign scientists and high-tech workers. "Over time, imported human capital has developed much technology," Koslowski said. A third of Silicon Valley engineers are foreign born, for example. The IT boom in the 1990s brought an influx of skilled engineers but those numbers have sharply decreased, partly due to a lack of demand in a depressed IT sector, but also due to changes in the immigration process and conditions of entry.

"International migration affects the development of information technology," Koslowski said. Such new technology includes databases that will screen visitors; new border controls; advanced information on passengers and cargo; and an entry-exit system that could track visas and trace visa overstays.

Although increased security measures have put strains on migration, travel, and the economy, the new technology is being designed to avert potential threats and keep civilians safer. It remains to be seen whether that will happen.

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