Customs Officials Trying to Make Travel to U.S. Easier

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is hoping to make entering the United States more welcoming and less complicated for international visitors, with tools such as brochures and multilingual videos.

The agency commissioned its first model port Wednesday at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, where visitors can watch on mounted television monitors a video on the customs process and peruse guides to filling out custom forms. Officers will later begin roaming the winding lines to answer questions.

"We want the world to really understand that the United States is still a welcoming nation, our borders are still open," Jeffrey Baldwin, the Department of Homeland Security's director of field operations in Houston, said at a news conference. "Our challenge at CBP is doing both our facilitative role and also protecting our country."

An initiative between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff designated the Houston airport and Washington Dulles International Airport to try out the effort to make the customs process easier and more efficient. Travelers going through Dulles can expect to see similar features later this spring. The effort will spread to the country's other major airports within five years, Baldwin said.

International travel to the United States took a hit after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - 24.3 million people applied for and were granted a visitor's visa in 2002, compared to 29.4 million the year before, according to Homeland Security statistics. That number climbed to 28.5 million visitors in 2005, and officials forecast it will continue to rise.

At Bush Intercontinental, customs officials plan to select the instructional video language - projected from speakers and shown in subtitles - based on the original destination of flights that are coming in, said spokeswoman Debra Zezima. The languages available now are Spanish, French, English and German. Japanese and Arabic are in the works.

Brochures about custom forms and travel to the United States are currently available only in English, but Zezima said six translations will be ready before the summer.

Officials also hope a new set of multilingual signs helps allay some confusion about which line visitors should join.

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