Passengers arriving from abroad at Los Angeles International Airport use new automated passport kiosks on Sept 24, 2014.(Photo: Nick Ut, AP)
WASHINGTON — John Kelly, President-elect Donald Trump's pick for secretary of Homeland Security, pledged Tuesday to support heavier scrutiny of travelers overseas to prevent terrorists from infiltrating the U.S..
In remarks at his Senate confirmation hearing, Kelly said he backs enhanced questioning of travelers from countries that don’t require visas to enter the U.S.. He also agreed with expansion plans for the Preclearance program, which scrutinizes travelers for customs and immigration at 16 airports overseas before they board planes.
On the home front, Kelly said he would work with states such as Montana that haven’t yet adopted identification standards to comply with the Real ID program.
Kelly, 66, a retired Marine Corps general and one of the longest-serving members of the military in history, is expected to be confirmed with bipartisan support. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, called him “uniquely qualified to be the fifth secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.”
Tougher scrutiny for travelers from visa-waiver countries, which include most of Europe, is already in place because of concerns terrorists from the Middle East could travel through those countries to wreak havoc in the U.S.
Travelers must complete questionnaires called an Electronic System for Travel Authorization, which now ask about travel to countries such as Syria or Yemen since 2011.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said 40,000 travelers have been denied visa-free travel since February because of the enhancements. One unnamed traveler was stopped before traveling through South America to reach the U.S., she said.
Kelly said visa-waiver countries have superior law enforcement and information systems that give U.S. officials “high confidence” travelers are trustworthy. But, “nothing is perfect,” he added.
Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said the industry supports a visa-waiver program with strong information-sharing between countries.
“We remain a steady, willing and capable partner to the incoming administration on all efforts to ensure the integrity of this vital program,” Dow said.
McCaskill also asked Kelly about the Preclearance program, where travelers clear customs and immigration before boarding planes in Canada, Ireland, Abu Dhabi and several Caribbean countries. Jeh Johnson, the current secretary of Homeland Security, has begun talks to expand the program to another dozen airports.
“It’s a good idea,” Kelly said. “We have to have confidence in the information that we’re getting on site to prevent people that would come here to do us harm.”
The Real ID program that Congress created in 2005 has been contentious in some states because of privacy concerns and opposition to federal ID cards. But the Transportation Security Administration is warning travelers from nine states that they will need identification other than their driver’s licenses in order to board planes by Jan. 22, 2018.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said the program has been controversial in his state for at least 10 years because residents are opposed to a federal identification database.
Kelly said he would work with states to meet the requirements.
“There’s always the possibility of additional time waivers,” Kelly said. “But I’d like to work with the states on that.”