It is always worth taking a moment to celebrate when government gets something right. The Department of Homeland Security just did when it announced recently that its pilot Global Entry program will not only become permanent by March 7, 2012 but also expanded to include children under the age of 14. Through Global Entry, Washington has finally achieved its long-sought-after goal of providing expedited immigration and customs clearance to pre-approved, low-risk travelers coming into the U.S.
Here’s how the program works: First would-be participants submit an application along with a $100 fee. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reviews the application and conducts an in-person interview with the applicant at a Global Entry airport. At the interview, the applicant is questioned, fingerprinted, and photographed. Then, once approved for a period of five years, the participant need only use a kiosk to complete immigration and customs clearance when coming into the U.S. No more long lines. No more inspections by CBP officers.
Sounds pretty good, right? We thought so, too. That said, we did recall the previous, not-so-successful INS Passenger Accelerated Service System (INSPASS) at several major airports, launched in 1993. The INSPASS system used the hand geometry biometric for the verification of travelers but it also required travelers to obtain INSPASS cards containing their biometric data. The program, discontinued in 2002, never really fulfilled its promise as it was only available in seven airports with a total of 15 kiosks. In the words of one industry expert, the travelers just paid to move from one line to stand in another. Other subsequent programs, such as NEXUS for Canadian travelers and SENTRI for Mexican land travelers, were too limited in scope to have any significant impact in relieving congestion across the country.
So forgive those of us who have worked in the immigration field for years for being a bit skeptical about Global Entry when it was first rolled out last summer. Nonetheless, it was important to keep an open mind as well as experience the program first-hand so we could better advise our clients about its efficacy. Several of us at the firm applied for Global Entry and tested it out during our recent travels.
To our pleasant surprise, it worked. In most cases, there were more kiosks than travelers seeking admission, so we did not have to wait at all. In another instance, when all of the kiosks were not working, a colleague was able to show his Global Entry sticker in his passport and was then escorted ahead of the line without terrible delays.
Global Entry looks like the real deal, performing as promised. It’s not perfect, of course, in part because it is only open to U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and Canadian, Mexican, and Dutch nationals. In addition, Global Entry is operational at just 20 international airports in the United States, as well as pre-flight inspection stations at selected airports in Canada. This isn’t enough. The scope and availability of the program needs to be significantly broadened to include citizens from far more countries traveling to the U.S. to truly alleviate congestion and turn what has been a frustrating exercise for travelers into an easy, even pleasurable one. In addition, the approval process itself needs to be improved. We understand why persons with past immigration or customs infractions are not eligible for Global Entry benefits. But some of these so-called infractions were due to misunderstandings, either by the traveler or the inspector. They were not intentional violations of the law. In such instances, we urge CBP to exercise more discretion and not reject these applicants based on technicalities of a flawed process.
President Obama is right in touting this program, and in issuing an executive order to expedite visa processing at consular posts, particularly those in Brazil, China and India. After all, if we want to welcome visitors to the United States, a cluttered and infuriating customs process is not the first impression we want to give. So, at least for the moment, we will celebrate a success.
Kudos to the Homeland Security officials running the Global Entry program!